Monthly Archives: September 2017

Mr and Mrs Smith

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: John and Jane Smith share a house and a five (or six) year marriage, but not the true nature of their day jobs: they are both assassins, for rival agencies. When they are assigned the same hit, their secret lives are uncovered and their marriage becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.

There are certain types of film that will always get the benefit of the doubt, round these parts anyway: low-budget projects, movies by new, young filmmakers or those featuring up-and-coming actors, for example. You look over rough edges and the odd naff scene because you can see enthusiasm for the art, a desire to succeed, in every frame.

Mr and Mrs Smith is clearly not one of those films, combining as it does A-list stars, a major studio, a hot director and a high-concept idea. Gorgeous Angelina Jolie, handsome Brad Pitt, The Bourne Identity’s Doug Liman and a shedload of guns: It’s sexy, that’s what that is! Like Grosse Pointe Blank but with incredibly beautiful people, like True Lies only they’re both at it! Sexy sexy sexy!

Except it’s not, not at all. And the reason why is that high concept: ‘married assassins oblivious to each others’ jobs’ sounds great as a seven word pitch, but try writing a well-plotted script around it and everything falls apart. The film starts with John and Jane Smith’s marriage in trouble, and as they head out separately for the evening we are meant to be thinking of infidelity; but we already know they are killers, if not from the massive publicity that brought us to the film in the first place, then from the early flashback to Colombia where they initially meet.

Five (or six – and doesn’t that joke get old quickly?) years later, Pitt’s first hit is in an Irish bar. We don’t know why he’s doing it, but he has to kill a man called Lucky, and he does it by charming his way into a poker game with Lucky’s henchmen, one of whom has the most despicable Irish accent you have ever heard. The hit complete, he returns home to Jolie who has just completed a murder in fetish gear. She asks where he’s been and explains he’s been to a Sports bar where he ‘got lucky.’ Ba-dum-tish!

This is the quality of joke throughout. Clearly the film is pitched as an action romp rather than a black comedy, and as such belly laughs are hardly to be expected; but the gags are lame when they come, so Liman relies on Brad Pitt’s fame and rugged charm to impress. It even gets as low as one character sporting a Fight Club T-shirt. See what we’ve done? Knowing, eh?! Oh, fff…for God’s sake, go away.

Laziness seeps out everywhere. Jane Smith says she was an orphan and that the man who gave him away at the wedding was a paid actor. Has her ‘family’ never been referred to or spoken about subsequently, let alone been paid a visit? You can’t imagine the deceit lasting five (or…whatever) days, let alone years. Over-analysis maybe, but symptomatic of a film that is so busy being cool that it completely sacrifices coherence. Lots of gadgetry, loads of busy, buzzy music, but very little sense.

The real problem, however, isn’t sloppiness. Once the Smiths’ secrets are out, their first instincts are to kill each other – well, Jane mostly wants to kill John, cries when she thinks she might have actually done it, then finding she hasn’t, wants to kill him again. On screen this really isn’t much fun, partially because you don’t know who to support (unlike Bourne, one isn’t the hero and the other the villain); but mostly because watching a couple trying to murder one another is rather unsettling.

Even if you enjoy shotguns blasting holes in the walls, and fridges being riddled with machine-gun fire, to the funky accompaniment of Express Yourself, watching a man punching and kicking a woman to pieces is simply unpleasant. It’s not funny, it’s not dramatic, it’s just nasty; and the fact that it gets them all revved up for sex is just insulting.

It comes as little surprise that, post sex, the Smiths team up against the world in a fight for survival, and no surprise at all that this fight features gargantuan explosions, car chases and the shooting of dozens of black-clad, armed-but-useless agents. There is next to no explanation of who these agents are, who they work for, or why they need Mr & Mrs S dead. Or why, following the big climactic scene, everything is perfectly safe again.

And then you have Vince Vaughn’s Eddie, one of the few supporting characters with human characteristics, in so much as Vaughn bothers to project them. In Liman’s Swingers, Vaughn was new and his arrogance was fresh and funny, but time and again since he has displayed the antithesis of range, reprising the same “eye for the ladies” shtick in every role and only confirming that sleaze does not become more appealing with age. You could argue that the role of Eddie requires nothing of Vaughn: he delivers that, and less.

Okay, so I didn’t like the film much, but will make one concession: there is decent chemistry between the leads, which for a while, at least, served them well in ‘real’ life, such as theirs was; and if you like pretty people, showy gunplay, stylish violence, technically proficient explosions and the like, you may be able to stare at this film and gawp. Just don’t try to do anything more than rub its shiny surface; you’re likely to put your finger through and discover that, on the inside, it’s completely empty.

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Choke

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Victor Mancini tries to work through his sex addiction at the same time as he seeks answers about his past (and his father) from his mentally-absent mother, whose care Victor funds in a very unusual way. Doctor Paige Marshall proposes an equally unusual solution to some of his problems, but Victor’s suddenly unable to rise to the occasion – and it doesn’t help that his mum’s diary appears to suggest that he’s at least half-divine!

If sex addiction has ever seemed at all sexy to you, one look at Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) will put you off for life. Victor’s sexual compulsions are causing havoc at his Addicts Anonymous meetings, and although he wants to take the next step, it’s proving difficult since he’s got an awful lot on his plate. His mother Ida (Anjelica Huston) is spending her last days in a $3,000-a-month care home, a fee Victor can’t hope to pay as a tour guide ‘historical interpreter’ at a Colonial theme park, so to fill the gap he pretends to choke in restaurants, subsequently leeching off his rescuers with sob stories.

Not that it’s doing Ida much good. Having always been an unpredictable firebrand (seen in flashback, with Jonah Bobo as the young Victor), she’s now losing her mind, constantly thinking Victor is a lawyer and mistaking Victor’s friend Denny (Brad William Henke) for her son. When facility Doctor Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald) offers to help, Victor’s gratified, though Paige’s methods are eccentric: first of all, she suggests stem-cell research, presenting herself as the potential mother of the saviour child. Secondly, her translation of Ida’s Italian diary suggests that far from being the result of a fling, Victor is actually cloned from a sacred relic, namely Jesus’ Holy foreskin. With information like that doing the rounds, no wonder Victor suddenly finds it hard to perform.

Having been knocked out by Fight Club – I still think it’s one of the great films of the century (so far) – I was keen to either read a Chuck Palahniuk novel or watch something else based on his works. Having watched Choke, I’m almost more determined to seek out his books; because I have no real idea whether Choke is a poor adaptation compared to Fight Club, or if David Fincher elevated ordinary material miles above its true level. In part, the two works are recognisably by the same author – the therapy groups, Ida’s semi-random anti-social acts, the incessant narration – but whereas Fight Club told a scorching, disturbing yet relevant tale, Choke – on screen at least – suffocates on its vexatious complexity.

Specifically, the plot just gives Victor far too much to worry about. He’s a sex addict, fine; he’s trying to cope with a mentally-ill, fading mother, okay; he’s using the time he has left to find out who his father is, well, that sort of fits; he can’t perform with Paige because he might be emotionally involved with her, alright, that’s plenty to be getting on with; he feigns choking in restaurants for financial and emotional gain, you’re starting to lose me; he helps Denny (Henke) and his stripper girlfriend build an enigmatic stone structure and incidentally may be a clone – sorry, half-clone – of Jesus, no, stop. Please stop.

I enjoy a bit of weird as much as the next man, but Choke spreads its oddness out in so many directions at once (I’ve not even mentioned the various intrigues at Victor’s workplace) that nothing about it feels solid or substantial. Because of this, when the twist arrives in the final act, the reaction is not one of amazement (or incomprehension, which I’ll freely admit was my initial reaction to Fight Club’s twist), but ‘Well, something had to be wrong, ‘cos none of it made much sense.’ Individually, bits of the plot work: the sex addicts’ group is treated in an adult fashion, and the scenes involving Ida and Victor as both adult and child are both instructive and involving. However, too much of the film feels as though it’s enacting scenes without the slightest clue of how (or if) it all fits together.

Which brings me to my second problem. Choke clearly deals with a number of serious issues; so why did I feel as though I was watching a variation of Sideways, with horndogs replacing wine buffs? Most of the problem, I think, lies in Nathan Larson’s plinky music, which constantly and unhelpfully underscores that what’s going on is not gritty and dark but quirky, light-hearted even. The story, whilst often funny, is ultimately far from comic and director Clark Gregg doesn’t find anything like the right tone.

It’s a shame, too, since he’s given at least three fine performances: Sam Rockwell is magnetic, though (as always) rarely sympathetic; Huston does brilliantly to span the decades and remain the same devious, unbalanced woman; and Kelly Macdonald, who does all she can to bring credibility to an extremely far-fetched part. There are also a number of nice touches: Victor mentally undressing people whether he wants to or not, or his assignation with Heather Burns’ demanding role-player.

I do Choke no favours by comparing it to Fight Club and viewed in isolation it deserves credit for being different, for daring to tell a difficult tale in forthright fashion. That said, Victor never adds up to a whole person and Choke doesn’t add up to a whole movie. Maybe – just maybe – the book makes more sense.

The Man Who Cried

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: When a hard-up Jewish farmer leaves Russia to seek his fortune in America, he leaves behind a young daughter who is forced to flee herself when her life is threatened. She ends up in England, acquires the name Suzie and with her talent for singing sets off for Paris as a staging post to America. However, in Paris Suzie befriends carefree Lola and mysterious gypsy Cesar, both of whom will have a profound effect on her life – though the invasion of the Nazis ruins all their plans.

Russia, 1927, and a devoted father (Oleg Yankovskiy) makes the heart-breaking decision to leave his farm and beloved daughter Fegele (Claudia Lander-Duke) at home whilst he heads for the promised land of America. Unbeknownst to him, the village is soon after cleared of Jews and with a photograph of her father her only possession, Fegele boards a ship, not (as she thinks) bound for The States but for England, where she is taken in, given the name Suzie and subjected to the taunts of unsympathetic schoolchildren.

Suzie can sing, however, and this talent serves her well as an adult (played by Christina Ricci) when she comes to find a career, heading for the gaudy clubs of Paris as a first step to finding her father in America; in Paris, she befriends Russian dancer Lola (Cate Blanchett) and the two become room-mates. Suzie and Lola meet two very different men: Lola, looking for a rich man to look after her, works her way into the affections of Italian singer Dante (John Turturro), who gets them both work in the opera run by Felix Perlman (Harry Dean Stanton), whilst Suzie finds she prefers the company of fellow outcast Cesar (Johnny Depp), a handsome but poor gypsy who provides opera horses.

World War II begins, threatening each of the characters in different ways, and as Dante knows about Suzie’s Jewish heritage she is more vulnerable than most. Forced to leave Cesar, Suzie resumes the long journey towards her father, suffering further tragedy on the way; and even when father and daughter are reunited, the event is accompanied by new and unwelcome surprises.

As it shows Fegele/Suzie’s tough, tragedy-filled childhood, and proceeds to contrast Lola’s desire to climb socially with Suzie’s (equally doomed) quest for meaningful love and real belonging, The Man Who Cried reveals itself to be an attractive, lyrical film, paying close attention to the creation of both period and atmosphere. The latter is largely created through music, and from the difficult tunes of the gypsies to Suzie’s plaintive rendering (as both child and adult) of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the film is sure-footed in terms of its score, vital given the importance that music has throughout the story, not least in Dante’s defiant, then collaborative, singing.

In their supporting roles, Blanchett and Turturro are very good at playing out their relationship of convenience – he gets sex, she gets material comforts – and the whole film is carried along by the theme of daughters looking for fathers or father figures, Potter directing with a detachment that allows the characters’ emotions to speak for themselves rather than being accentuated by artificial tricks. Particularly effecting is one of the film’s very few comic moments, also a moment of pathos as Dante and Suzie become the sole remaining performers at the opera, playing to an almost empty house.

Unfortunately, two major things hamper the viewer from becoming involved more fully in Suzie’s story. Firstly, her relationship with Cesar – an illiterate, taciturn man – fails to convince, not necessarily because of any fault of Depp’s but because the part just isn’t solid enough. It involves a lot of stares and a bit of sex, but for the relationship to truly mean something it should have had a climax, a consequence, a surprise – even something akin to Titanic would have been nice. Yes, Depp is a man who cries, but his and Suzie’s parting doesn’t feel sufficiently dreadful, when he is going off to fight for his life and she to remember him forever in a distant land.

And this is the second point; talented though she is, Christina Ricci doesn’t get under the skin of her role. Passing over the complications of portraying an English-educated Russian Jew (in her remarkably few lines of dialogue she goes for a plain, prim English accent), Ricci’s Suzie is an observer of all the goings-on, including the deportation of her Jewish landlady, but none of the traumatic events in her life (‘coming of age’, for example, or the death of Lola on the voyage to America) get built into her character, and at the end of the film she is just a child happy to see her father and sad to see him dying.

I don’t think her child-like appearance is necessarily a bad thing, though she is a good deal shorter than the other actors; however, as Ricci plays Suzie the last scene could have been filmed the same day as her first, and since she seems unchanged by her experiences, the viewer is entitled to wonder why he or she should be particularly bothered about them.

I’m not sure Ricci was miscast so much as misdirected, just as I believe Depp made as much as he could out of Cesar (there is the other consideration that Depp and Ricci had previously worked together on Sleepy Hollow and found the intimate scenes distressing, which may or may not show). Whatever, Sally Potter must take as much blame for failing to draw out a central element of her own story as she should take credit for making an otherwise thoughtful and beautiful film with an unusual but effective female sensibility. Worth watching just to hear Dido’s Lament, and though it’s flawed in many respects, it is for the most part fascinatingly flawed.

Napoleon Dynamite

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Loner Napoleon and his brother Kip are left to fend for themselves (and a llama) when their grandmother has a quad bike accident on the dunes. Pigskin-wielding Uncle Rico arrives to look after them and soon starts interfering in their affairs, including Napoleon’s High School Prom and fledgling political career.

A refreshing antidote to a slew of high school movies, Napoleon Dynamite takes high school staples and plays around with them, using the simple trick of making the school’s beautiful people not very beautiful and working down from there. Napoleon is initially presented as a bullied loner, a weirdo with a weird family. But as he goes through the school year with its familiar mileposts of the school dance and election, he gains friends and admirers – okay, a friend and an admirer – in his campaign to help fellow outsider Pedro become school president.

And that, essentially, is it. Napoleon Dynamite is a contained, understated film whose humour comes across so subtly, without a hint of mugging by the actors, that it comes within a whisker of underselling itself as a low-budget oddity. But this is the key to the film’s appeal: the characters are funny because they take themselves entirely seriously. Too often comedies suffer because the actors think they are so funny, characterisation is optional (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn et al, I’m looking at you). Here, Jon Heder is excellent in the title role and Efren Ramirez as Pedro underplays nicely.

Credit too to Tina Majorino as Deb, the mousy love interest with whom Napoleon shares a sweet, chaste romance. In other films, Deb and Napoleon would both undergo a miraculous makeover and dazzle their fellow students at the prom; but true to the rest of the film, the couple get no closer than a brief touch of hands and a game of tetherball. Napoleon’s highpoint in the whole movie is the exhibition of dancing skills in support of Pedro’s presidential campaign, after which he promptly flees the stage.

Mention should also be made of Aaron Ruell, superb as Napoleon’s man-child brother Kip; indeed he almost steals the film. Kip finds love on the internet and although his belle is not the ‘sandy blonde’ he believes he has been chatting with, his courtship is both funny and touching. Amongst these delicate flowers aggressive salesman Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is rather overpowering, but this is the point of his character and deep down he is a tragic figure, regretting the past desperately enough to buy and attempt to use an excruciatingly painful ‘time machine’ from the Internet.

Napoleon’s world is not explicitly set in a particular time. Although the VCRs, Tupperware, clothes and hairstyles strongly evoke the 1980s, we are allowed to infer that the Dynamites, and the town of Preston as a whole, are merely behind the times. I am in no way qualified to say whether this is a comment on the State of Idaho, but if it is a joke it’s an affectionate one.

Ultimately the film runs out of steam, partly because this is what comedies tend to do; but there is also a sense that Napoleon and company only have these short, small-town stories within them. Nevertheless, the tale is positive, and silly in the best sense of the word. Napoleon is a man who does the right thing at the right time: he is a hero, and a romantic hero at that. Napoleon Dynamite is not a film that demands to be seen time and again: but it deserves to be seen once.

Hollywoodland

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: George Reeves, TV’s first Superman, is found dead and the police come to the conclusion that he committed suicide. Acting on a tip-off, dogged private investigator Louis Simo does some digging and finds more than one party with reasons to hold a grudge against the troubled actor. However, Louis’ pre-occupation with the case lands him in all sorts of trouble.

In 1959, Superman actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead in his bed. The police instantly write the death off as a suicide, but private dick Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) gets wind that it’s not as simple as that, and pitches the idea to Reeves’ mother that the death may not have been self-inflicted. As Simo delves, he discovers that Reeves – who had a role in Gone with the Wind and starred in The Adventures of Sir Galahad – was the long-time lover of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM executive Eddie (Bob Hoskins).

Eddie already has a Japanese mistress, George needs contacts, and Toni is desperate for love and attention, so the arrangement seems to suit them all; but George’s ambitions of being a bona fide star only get him as far as a TV version of Superman. The part is badly paid, poorly written, requires him to wear a naff suit (until later, when it’s shot in colour) and doesn’t do his body any good, but he has fun on set and becomes a massive hero to kids. The downside is that he becomes typecast – his role in From Here to Eternity is cut down because audiences make fun of Superman appearing in another film* – so opportunities for him to grow as an actor are limited.

When the series is cancelled in 1958, Reeves goes to New York in search of new possibilities, much to Toni’s dismay; and she’s devastated when he comes back with young fiancée Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) in tow. George becomes increasingly dependent on alcohol, and makes a painful show reel for a wrestling gig he’s offered; and then he’s dead. But would he really commit suicide with a directing gig coming up? Or was greedy, aggressive Leonore’s finger on the trigger? Or could Eddie, a man not above dirty dealing in the Hollywood Hills, have arranged the hit as revenge for his wife‘s turmoil?

As Simo keeps finding more questions than answers, he neglects his troubled client Mr Sinclair, which ends unfortunately for Mrs Sinclair; and as a result, Louis turns to drink himself, mortifying his son Evan (Zach Mills) when he turns up, shapeless, at his school. What’s more, Eddie doesn’t take at all kindly to guttersnipes poking around in his business.

One of my constant mantras about watching films has been ‘Go in with an open mind’. Unfortunately, I had the idea in my head that Hollywoodland was a film about George Reeves, and to find that was only partially the case came as a big disappointment. Of course, the life and death of Reeves is the reason the film exists, and you do get a sense of the events of his life, his career, why he may have taken his own life and why other people might have taken it for him. On the other hand, I came to the conclusion that screenwriter Paul Bernbaum got to about the hour mark of a story about George’s life, then got stuck, and invented Simo and his problems just to bring the film up to a respectable length.

The result is not bad, as such – Brody makes for a terrifically weaselly private dick – but the guff surrounding his ex-wife and grumpy child, his girlfriend/receptionist, and his guilt over what happens to Mrs Sinclair, all feels like padding. As a viewer, you want to be where the action is, namely with George; and while Simo’s business is written, acted and brought to life with some skill, he’s not supposed to be the star of the show.

Straight reconstructions (such as The Notorious Bettie Page or Good Night, and Good Luck) can be slow and worthy, but I think Hollywoodland’s diversion into Chinatown/LA Confidential territory is ill-advised, especially when we have no particular motive to care for the protagonist. It doesn’t help that after replaying three versions of what might have happened to Reeves on the night of his death (the film plays fast and loose with its flashbacks), Simo seems to settle on the original and least controversial option. Talk about an anti-climax!

Still, Hollywoodland’s period setting is always immaculate and, unlike the similarly-themed Black Dahlia, the acting is of a very high standard. Affleck shows that he can act without a smirk on his face, and Lane plays Toni Mannix with just the right mixture of self-assurance and neediness. Hoskins convinces as the studio head, Tunney brings a glamorous but unhappy edge to Leonore (she’s shunned in George’s will), and Lois Smith is a forceful presence as Reeves’ mother, who may not be as close to her son as she lets on. In fact, the whole cast are impressive (notwithstanding Zach Mills’ distracting ears) – it’s just a shame so many of them were involved in the sideshow rather than the main feature.

I can’t blame Hollywoodland for not being the film I thought it was going to be, but I do find the idea of a real life being investigated by a fictional one to be jarring, especially since Reeves’ outings in the Superman costume come and go so quickly; with Affleck in good acting form, I could have happily watched a whole film about the actor‘s life, loves and death without Simo (good though Brody is) wondering whodunit. Still, next time I see it I’ll know exactly what I’m in for, and I reserve the right to come back and change my mind, and my score, completely.

NOTES: If you trust Wikipedia, this isn’t true. I said ‘if’.

Drop Dead Gorgeous

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Mount Rose, Minnesota is home to the area finals of the Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant, a contest celebrating its 50th anniversary. Gladys Leeman, Event organiser and former winner, is confident that neither perky poor girl Amber nor any of the other girls will obstruct her daughter Becky’s path to victory; and a sticky end awaits any of the contestants who look as though they might.

The beauty pageant has had a tough time of it this last twenty years. Always an essentially naff concept, by the start of the nineties beauty contests had practically disappeared from public view, vilified as outdated, sexist relics of a paternalistic age, only to come back coated with a new, critic-proof sheen of irony. It’s in this vein that Jann’s would-be documentary Drop Dead Gorgeous presents the contestants of the awkwardly-named American Teen Princess Pageant; but is it a Little Miss Sunshine-like swan or an ugly Carry On Girls-style duckling?

Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) is the local pageant organiser in the small farming town of Mount Rose, Minnesota. A winner of the contest herself back in the day, she now has a very nice life thanks to furniture-salesman husband Sam McMurray, and she fully intends to use the family’s influence to boost the chances of haughty gun-wielding daughter Becky (Denise Richards), by both picking and bribing the judges (Mike McShane, Matt Malloy and the film’s screenwriter Lona Williams).

Not that the competition is particularly fierce, in the main, since it includes chubby dog fanatic Tess Weinhaus; Molly Howard, adoptive daughter of enthusiastically pro-American Japanese parents (with a disgruntled natural child); toothy nymphette cheerleader Leslie Miller, complete with ubiquitous jock boyfriend; and Lisa Swenson, eccentric devotee of her brother’s New York drag act. But then there’s Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst); although she’s so poor she has to work in a funeral home and a canteen, she is both perky and talented, driven by an overwhelming desire to emulate Diane Sawyer that impresses her dipso mother (Ellen Barkin) and her mum’s friend Loretta (Allison Janney).

Amber is clearly a threat, so when ‘accidents’ start happening around the contestants – farm girl Tammy’s thresher explodes before she gets on stage, Amber’s admirer Brett gets shot in the head, the Atkins’ trailer blows up – suspicions are rife that things are rigged in Becky’s favour; suspicions more or less confirmed by Amber’s insanely difficult interview with the judges and Gladys’ refusal to let Amber on stage when her tap outfit – suspiciously – goes missing (luckily, Lisa steps into the breach).

It’s easy to invoke the name of Chris Guest at the mention of the word ‘mockumentary’, but to be absolutely fair to Drop Dead Gorgeous, it came out before his excellent Best In Show. Jann’s film is different in approach to Guest’s films, in any case, as while Guest’s actors inhabit the characters and let most of the jokes come spontaneously out of their mouths, the characters here are tightly-scripted, and each scene is engineered to deliver one particular joke.

And to be fair (again) the film features a decent sprinkling of funny moments, the height of the satire displayed in the anorexic state of the previous year’s winner, Mary Johanson (Alexandra Holden); but equally, there are bits that don’t work at all, and one of these is a supposed high point, after Amber has wowed the audience with her tap dancing. I have no theological concerns about Denise Richards dancing with a foam Jesus on a cross whilst singing You’re just too good to be true, but in execution the joke falls completely flat (Richards can’t sing, Jesus looks cheap, the crowd aren’t sufficiently shocked), and what should be outrageous comes over as tasteless for effect. The same is true later on when the film runs out of ideas and brings us mass vomiting in the state finals.

Perhaps one reason why the film doesn’t really work is that the young cast fail to stamp their personalities on their parts (there are too many contestants, too); and while Kirstie Alley works hard, the stand-out performances come from Malloy as the disturbingly keen judge John Dough and – of course – the brilliant Allison Janney, who guides Amber after her mother is confined to a wheelchair.

One more thing about the plot: the film sets up Gladys Leeman, her daughter, or both, as manipulative cheats, prepared to do anything to ensure Becky triumphs; and it is something of a disappointment to discover that all is exactly as it seems to be. I understand that making Amber either the shock winner, or the cynical genius behind the ‘accidents’ out to frame the Leemans, might have been a corny move (Bob Roberts?), but seeing the story play out completely straight is deflating – as is the extremely telegraphed nature of Becky’s post-win demise.

Furthermore, it’s a shame that when the film goes to great lengths to assert its documentary nature – the crew fall over into shot, meet up with a crew from Cops, and there are captions explaining the doctrine of non-interference – an intrusive soundtrack takes away from the movie’s otherwise naturalistic feel, often appearing out of nowhere and treading on actors’ lines.

Given the subject matter, it’s perhaps no surprise that Drop Dead Gorgeous comes across as broad and a little crass, and slightly inappropriate for a documentary format that favours subtler material. The cast could have done with a little more comic talent to free up the scenes, but this might also be a problem with the subject matter – beautiful and funny is a rare combination indeed. That said, Drop Dead Gorgeous raises enough laughs to pass a perfectly pleasant hour and a half, so long as you adjust your brain – not to ‘drop dead’, exactly, but to ‘slightly vacuous’.

Shriek if you know what I did Last Friday the 13th

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: A group of suspiciously familiar-looking students with a secret to hide unwittingly become the targets of a manic masked killer in and around their dysfunctional high school. As a dopey mall cop and a vacuous TV reporter watch proceedings unfold, everyone involved gets a strange feeling that they’ve seen it all before.

‘You can’t stop progress!’ was Bill Heslop’s catchphrase in Muriel’s Wedding, and in many ways this is a good thing: for one, it means I’ve mentioned Muriel’s Wedding, which is a great film; for another, it means that with the march of time and technology the range of films that you can watch without moving a muscle – in near-cinema quality, these days – has expanded exponentially, making the speculative trip to the local video, er, place a thing of the past. As such, opportunities to watch films such as SIYKWIDLFT13, complete with trailers for appallingly cheap sci-fi movies starring Steve Baldwin, have diminished considerably. I may be mad, but I believe this is a shame.

Why all the pre-amble? Well, there’s not an awful lot to say about Shriek if…, other than the fact that it covers nearly identical ground to Scary Movie, and by extension Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, except with a considerably lower budget (the two spoofs came out within similar timescales, and I don’t think this film actively copies the Wayans brothers’ effort in any way).

So, instead of little-known actors such as Anna Faris playing the parts of the high school pupils with a guilty conscience and a masked slasher causing havoc in the background, you have complete unknowns: Harley Cross is Dawson (geddit?), the new guy; Julie Benz is Barbara, the airhead blonde; Simon Rex is Slab, the dumb jock; Danny Strong is Boner, desperate to lose his virginity (thereby roping in American Pie and several old Porky’s jokes at the same time); and Majandra Delfino is Martina, possible love interest for Dawson except for the hurdle that everyone assumes she’s a lesbian (largely on the basis of her unimaginative name).

The ‘stars’ of the show are reporter ex-Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills 90210 starlet Tiffani-Amber Thiessen as crack reporter Hagitha Utslay, and ex-Mr Roseanne Barr Tom Arnold as dopey mall cop Doughy. Although the pair have some involvement in the plot late on, especially Arnold, they form not so much a chorus to the youngsters’ goings on as a pause for breath while the scene changes behind them, complete with gags both related and completely irrelevant to the goings-on elsewhere in the film. Predictably, this lends the film a very sketchy air, and though the whole is tied together by Scream’s plot, these interludes and other fairly unconnected cameos from Coolio as The Administrator Formerly known as Principal (not a bad joke, actually) give a shortish film a fragmented feel.

More than anything, though, the film parody lives or dies on the quality of the material; and Shriek… does contain enough laughs to overcome many of its limitations, not least in the deviant school nurse (Shirley Jones) and one or two of its more inspired, if not exactly up-to-date, parody moments – particularly good is a Grease skit which fails to catch on (‘Of course it looks stupid if you don’t join in’, moans Slab, or words to that effect).

But just when all is going quite well, in particular treading a nice line in not lapsing into the tastelessness of the Wayans brothers’ output, the film gets horribly self-conscious, Martina declaring to the assembled house party that they are in a ‘parody situation’, awkwardly name-checking inspirations such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun! and explaining the formula behind spoof films as the gags take place on-screen. This is in itself a Scream reference, of course, but comedy is never improved by someone trying to explain why something is supposed to be funny. Not that, at this particular point in the film, the jokes are up to much anyway.

This lumpy section apart, Shriek if you know what I did Last Friday the 13th is a harmless enough way to spend an hour and a half. That the Killer’s identity is of no consequence either before or after he’s revealed doesn’t matter much, but it is perhaps a bit disappointing that the younger actors don’t make a greater impression. They are, like the movie as a whole, pretty forgettable, but it’s a lot more appealing than Steve Baldwin doing sci-fi – though perhaps I should reserve judgement until I actually get round to seeing Xchange.