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You can be a parent: you can have free time. You can’t have both.

Hi folks, just a further quick hello to say that I am still around and do still have film reviews, and plenty of other stuff, to throw at you. However, we recently welcomed a second child into our lives and have discovered that if one little one is enough to take up, say, 60% of your available time, having two can easily take up 120% or more.

(By the way, I’m not even remotely complaining: they’re adorable, and my dear old mum had four of us to contend with – it’s a miracle one of us wasn’t “accidentally” left in another town/country along the way. It’s just that bringing up the first one, while being a scary journey into the unknown, had a few quieter moments; with the new one, there’s also the near-constant presence of a small-ish extra body who doesn’t nap and is always very, very keen to be played with.)

I toy with the thought of doing a blog about parenting but I’m not sure that I can ultimately offer anything of real use other than ‘It’s hard, you just have to get on with it’; besides, it’s not really anyone else’s business! Still, if I do ever find the off switch for kids I promise to share it here first. Anyway, back to the films…

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Hot Shots!

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Ace pilot Topper Harley is persuaded back to the Navy to take part in Operation Sleepy Weasel, even though the mention of his father Buzz causes him to black out during training flights. Fellow top gun Kent Gregory blames Buzz for his own father’s death, so psychologist (and Kent’s ex-squeeze) Ramada has much to sort out, not least her own feelings towards Topper. And that’s all without the mission, threatened not only by the unhinged oversight of Admiral ‘Tug’ Benson but also by the interference of shady businessmen.

I’m not sure that you could ever talk about a ‘golden age’ of spoof movies, since really good ones have always been few and far between, the gems easily outnumbered by lazy cash-ins. However, the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker or Kentucky Fried Theatre team hit gold with The Naked Gun and followed it up in 1991 with a strong sequel, The Smell of Fear. The same year, Jim Abrahams and writer Pat Proft turned out Hot Shots!: but does it hit the mark, or have the writers, in their haste, shot themselves in the foot?

Charlie Sheen is Topper Harley, a US Navy pilot haunted by the fate of his father to the extent that he leaves, to pursue a life among Native Americans who know him as Fluffy Bunny Feet. The importance of Operation Sleepy Weasel brings Lt Commander James Block (Kevin Dunn) to his tepee begging for his return; and Topper does, to the general delight of the squadron which includes boss-eyed Washout (Jon Cryer) and ominously-named ‘Dead Meat’ (William O’Leary).

Less pleased is Kent Gregory (Cary Elwes), who blames the recklessness of Topper’s dad Buzz for causing his father’s death in a hunting accident. Their enmity is assured when Kent’s old flame, Navy psychologist Ramada (Valeria Golino), finds herself drawn to Topper, even though his paternal conflict issues threaten to overwhelm him and ruin any mission he flies on.

What he doesn’t know is that Block has brought Harley back relying on him to break down in action, since he stands to gain by a deal with devious aircraft maker Mr Wilson (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). He may get lucky in love, but one way or another Topper seems destined to become a cropper up in the skies.

It goes without saying that Hot Shots! is a spoof of Top Gun, although it’s less bothered with satirising the all-boys-together nature of Tony Scott’s film than it is with making a joke at any opportunity. As usual, the jokes are of variable quality, some great (the sequence in the Indian reservation is very funny and starts off a marvellous running gag involving a Chihuahua) and some less impressive – essentially, anything where the joke is a character falling over or hitting their heads (then falling over).

The plot is insubstantial but enough to hang the jokes on, and the cast do what they can to get the best out of the material: Sheen is dumb and handsome, Golina pleasantly full of Latin passion, Elwes assuredly arrogant and snobbish, Cryer agreeably goofy. But the pick of the bunch has to be Lloyd Bridges, nearly 80 at the time and showing all the punchiness that made his turn in Airplane! such fun. He’s the real star of the show, even if Benson is just a variation on Police Academy’s Commandant Lassard (another Proft creation), and his delivery is always spot-on (his admission to being clueless about Operation ‘Slippery Weevil’ is perfect).

Aside from Top Gun, Hot Shots! also riffs on Dances With Wolves, 9½ Weeks and The Fabulous Baker Boys and does it well; however, at about the two-thirds mark Topper bursts into Only You and the film curiously starts looking back on itself, even more curiously breaking into random parodies of Rocky, Gone with the Wind and Superman. Though not without value gag-wise, these jokes come from nowhere and don’t really mesh with the rest of the film.

The plot then shifts into its final set-piece with an attack on the Middle East and America‘s favourite (ex-) bogeyman Saddam Hussein, and there’s a definite sense that an hour of comedy was as much as Abrahams and Croft had in their lockers. In retrospect, we should be grateful that there’s a good hour of comedy here, since by the time Scary Movies 3 and 4 came along Abrahams and his cohorts’ jokes were little more than vaguely contemporary films/TV/music videos refashioned so that the characters hit their heads on something.

One thing Hot Shots! does have in its favour is production values. It would have been difficult to make a Top Gun rip-off without spending a bit of money, I suppose, but in terms of the extras used to fill out the base (carrying out drills to the Brady Bunch theme) and the technology on show, you can tell that no corners have been cut (how much does it cost to rent out an aircraft carrier, I wonder?). While this in itself doesn’t improve the quality of the jokes, it does at least mean that you’re not distracted by cheap-looking props or wonky model work as the gags roll by.

I’ve watched Hot Shots! a few times over the years and it’s chucklesome, with willing performances from an attractive cast and the filmmakers showing a real care for how the whole thing looks. It’s less good when it loses focus, and the fact that I can’t bring many verbal jokes to mind is telling; compared to Airplane!, for example, the script is fairly weak. Nonetheless, the gags are still packed in at a decent rate and I have no doubt I’ll be watching it again, if only for the joy of Lloyd Bridges and the lovely Chihuahua gag.

Hello (again) and thanks!

Evening all. It’s been a little while now since I posted anything that wasn’t a film review, and I’m conscious that there are quite a few people following my sporadic postings as and when I get half an hour to spare (there is a bunch of other, non-film, stuff too – but all in good time).

So I just wanted to thank everyone who has followed me since I started posting to the site and I hope you continue to enjoy reading my thoughts. If I say anything that you know to be factually incorrect, or just want to kick off about an opinion you don’t like, please do let me know and I’ll

a) update the content accordingly or

b) tell you in no uncertain terms how wrong you are.

Best wishes y’all,

Bloom.

Devil Wears Prada, The

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Unassuming would-be writer Andy Sachs finds that her new job as second assistant to Runway magazine editor Miranda Priestly is a never-ending series of thankless tasks, though it is a role that thousands would apparently kill for. As Andy finds her feet and slips them into some very nice Jimmy Choos, she discovers that pleasing Miranda means sacrificing friendship, loyalty, and many of the values that she previously held dear.

If you imagine the fashion industry to be a snobbish, elitist clique filled with people who would happily stab their colleagues in the back with their gorgeous stiletto-heeled shoes and climb over their still-warm bodies to get on in the business, then this film will do nothing to convince you otherwise. The Devil Wears Prada sees fresh-faced newcomer Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) entering the lair of Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), notoriously demanding editor-in-chief at fashion bible Runway, and quickly succumbing to the worst traits of the industry.

‘Andy’ is shown to us as a good girl, enjoying a low-maintenance relationship with scruffy cook Nate (Adrian Grenier) and a suitably diverse set of friends (black artist, camp computer guy) whilst she searches to put her prodigious journalistic talents to good use. When she applies for a job as the assistant to Miranda’s assistant Emily (Emily Blunt), she initially draws nothing but scorn for her dowdy looks and ignorance of the importance of fashion; but Miranda sees something in her and takes her on.

With the impatient help of Emily and a little nudging from enthusiastic designer Nigel (Stanley Tucci, camping it up a treat), Andy is reborn as a beautiful, head-turning butterfly, and her innate competence begins to show through. The job ceases to be ‘just a job’ and Andy begins to dedicate her life to complying with Miranda’s wishes, to the detriment of spending time with those who care about her – Nate’s birthday party is a disaster – and Emily’s plans to live the good life at Miranda’s right-hand side.

The Devil Wears Prada comes across as an authentic portrayal of the fashion industry, with a keen ear for bitchiness in the script and a constant parade of fashion icons, clothes and accessories that those in the know will adore. However, having the inside track on the subject does not on its own guarantee a great story, and the most vaguely savvy filmgoer will be able to predict the events of the film as soon as the characters are set up.

Even though Hathaway frumps up convincingly, it’s no surprise whatsoever that she is easily transformed into a glamorous clothes horse. Will she make herself indispensible to Miranda, to the exclusion of everyone else? Will she have to step over Emily to get on in her work, even denying her her dream trip to Paris? Will Nate react badly to Andy’s new responsibilities and attitude, and will devilishly charming writer Christian Thompson (Simon Baker) offer himself as an alternative? I think we all know the answers.

Were the film thoroughly entertaining or thoroughly dramatic throughout, the familiarity of the plot would be easy to forgive, but as the movie goes on it starts to get overwhelmed by its own negativity, as the wasteland that is Miranda’s private life is laid bare and poor Nigel is crushed between the cogs of Miranda’s scheming as she clings to the only thing that defines her – her job.

Nonetheless, when it is entertaining The Devil Wears Prada is a lot of fun, and this is due to attractive playing by the leads. Anne Hathaway brings the girl-next-door qualities that she showed in The Princess Diaries and marries them to commanding emotion in her big eyes and a sexuality that manages to be both obvious and non-threatening. She is also funny, shown to best effect in her exchanges with Emily Blunt who, while insanely focused on her job and dishing out many of the film’s best insults, also skilfully gets a lot of the sympathy as illness and then injury scupper her dreams.

Streep easily embodies the jaded ruthlessness of Miranda, the scathing boss whose orders are never questioned, managing to make her a partially sympathetic figure when she reveals to Andy the state of her personal affairs (though this particular bit isn’t much fun). In a film where the women dominate (for a change), Tucci does fantastically well to hold up his end; between them, these four clearly and cleverly demonstrate the ups and downs of the fashion industry – but while the characters are interesting and often amusing, there’s not quite enough meat to keep the film going for the best part of two hours.

It’s well-constructed and always watchable, but in the end The Devil Wears Prada has a feel of being put together by the book, with plot, cast, design and soundtrack all built as clinically as an issue of Runway magazine, crafted to the finest detail, leaving nothing to happy accident. Which is not to say the film lacks heart, because Andy and Emily display a great deal of warmth. What can be said is that the film is rarely light-hearted, and never carefree.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: When chaotician Ian Malcolm discovers that his girlfriend Sarah has been hired to research a second island of dinosaurs, his past experience tells him to get her out PDQ. He’s right too: but the trouble only starts when the real monsters – the company looking to maximise revenues from the prehistoric creatures – arrive, intent on creating a new attraction closer to home.

Poor Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Having lived to tell the tale of Jurassic Park, InGen – the company formerly run by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, briefly reprising his Scottishish accent) have not only denied all knowledge of Isla Nubar, they’ve secretly kept a second island of dinosaurs running. What’s more, after an unfortunate incident, InGen has sent Ian’s partner Sarah (Julianne Moore) to the island to research the diverse range of dinosaur life.

Ian sets off in hot pursuit to get her out before the inevitable chaos starts, but he’s not alone: in addition to engineer Eddie (Richard Schiff), the party includes photographer Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn) and – inadvertently – Ian’s gymnastic but hardly close daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester). They’re soon joined on the island by InGen’s Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), a small army of workers and single-minded hunter Roland (Pete Postlethwaite), looking to put a Tyrannosaurus Rex on his trophy wall. Ludlow has plans to establish a new Jurassic Park in San Diego and, despite Ian’s predictions coming catastrophically true, he’s determined to get his way at any cost.

Many factors went into making Jurassic Park a wonderful film, not least the simplicity of its plot – essentially, an exciting, two-hour long scramble for safety. While there was a sub-plot in Nedry’s commercial sabotage, it went hand in glove with the main storyline and set the whole thing in motion. The problem The Lost World has is not merely the inevitable backtracking and revisionism needed to make it possible – ‘Oh, did I not mention site B?’; ‘Lysine deficiency? Dinosaurs got round that in a snap’ – but the fact that once all the protagonists have been sent to Isla Sorna, the film goes in several directions at once: Ian’s various relationship difficulties, Nick’s activism, InGen/Ludlow’s corporate greed, callousness and insane plans, Roland’s quest for a showdown.

Unsurprisingly, the dinosaurs chasing after the humans is the least problematic part of the film, since Spielberg is an absolute master of this sort of action; the breaking-glass excitement of the vehicle hanging over the cliff is a particular highlight. However, the mechanisms used to put everyone in place are ungainly at times: so Kelly just sits in that van, with nobody checking in and Ian not wondering where she’s got to?

A contingent problem The Lost World has is that it tries to carve up our sympathies too finely. We know who our five – then four – heroes are, and it couldn’t be more clear that Ludlow is a human monster (What does Spielberg have against bookish men in small, round-rimmed glasses?); but what to make of Roland, seemingly an evil hunter but given dignity (and allowed to live) because he’s a pure predator like the T-Rex?

And what to make of the dinosaurs themselves? Yes, they’re still savage beasties, but hey, they’re parents too. Amongst this confusion, it’s difficult to know what to make of characters like Peter Stormare’s Dieter: on the one hand, he’s boorish and sadistic towards the poor little Compsognathi (if that’s the plural); on the other, does he really deserve his nasty demise?

All this is without the typically Spielbergian father-daughter guff between Ian and Kelly; she’s not overwhelmingly annoying, though Chester’s acting isn’t always the best, and I (unlike many, it seems) don’t have a problem with her ethnicity except to say that it has a whiff of tokenism about it. What I don’t accept is that a small girl swinging on an uneven bar will have anything like the force to kick a ruddy great velociraptor out of a window.

As far as the rest of the leads go, Goldblum and Moore are both fine if unconventional action heroes, Howard’s Arliss is gloriously hateful, and Postlethwaite carefully controls his ambivalent status throughout. There’s nothing wrong with Vince Vaughn’s Nick Van Owen, either, but it’s interesting to look back and see Mr Insincerity having a go at being a regular movie star – with not entirely convincing results.

Of course, what Spielberg evidently really wants from The Lost World is his own King Kong/Godzilla moment, and this second climax is where the film comes alive. The San Diego section is action-packed, immaculately visualised, funny (check out the spoof movie displays in the Blockbuster store) and really helps to make the movie feel less like a re-tread of the original. Even here, however, there’s a downer in the shape of a massive plot hole. If the ship’s crew have been dead for a while, how on earth does it get to San Diego, and why has nobody twigged that there’s a problem? Alternatively, if the crew have only just been killed, what killed them? It can’t have been the Tyrannosaurus safely locked up below deck. Perhaps wisely, Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp* keep the action moving in the hope that we won’t dwell on these things too much.

I never give sequels credit for merely repeating the events of the first film, and it has to be said that more than a few scenes from The Lost World echo Jurassic Park very closely. That said – and despite a surprisingly high number of sloppy writing flaws – the action still works like a charm, thanks to the brilliance of the special effects and the innate sense of rhythm Spielberg possesses for action movies. By no means a monster hit, this movie is still far from beastly.

NOTES: At least Koepp gets his comeuppance in the film. He’s appears – briefly – as a victim of the T-Rex’s wrath, and is credited as ‘Unlucky Bastard’.

Spider-Man

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: On a school field trip, nerdy science genius Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically-engineered spider, causing him to undergo some very sudden and profound changes. With his new-found powers, Peter also finds that with great power comes great responsibility, that he cannot protect everyone he loves, and that those near him are not always looking after his best interests.

It wasn’t a term that was used at the time of Spider-Man’s release, but Sam Raimi’s film is essentially a ‘reboot’ of the web-slinging hero’s movie career, following on from some limp TV movie efforts produced in the late 70s. Here, Tobey Maguire plays Peter Parker, the introverted youngster who gets nipped by a super-spider and inherits its traits of athleticism, web-slinging and eerie precognition.

As expositions go, Spider-Man is pretty effective, the film quickly establishing that Parker is clever, the victim of bullying, and hopelessly in love with the red-headed girl next door, Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Parker lives with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris) and is friends with bolshy rich boy Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of even bolshier military industrialist Norman (Willem Dafoe); all of this is set up in the first ten minutes or so, and leaves plenty of time for Peter to discover and develop his powers, dishing out an entertaining beating to the bullies who formerly tormented him and making a name for himself via a comical wrestling bout, although that evening ends in tragedy as Peter fails to foil a robbery, the robber shooting Uncle Ben and providing the young superhero with a valuable lesson in what he should be doing.

So far, so good, and despite Harry starting a relationship with MJ, she falls in love with the masked Spider-Man, meaning Peter is happier than ever. But into his life comes the evil Green Goblin, in fact the deranged persona of Norman Osborn, the result of an experiment gone wrong. The Goblin causes havoc wherever he turns up, most notably protecting the interests of Norman’s company, and it falls to Spidey, whenever he is not providing photographs of himself to the Daily Bugle, to rescue the population from his dastardly plans.

It is with the appearance of the Green Goblin that Spider-Man displays most of its faults. It is, of course, a tricky balancing act to introduce the characters of (what will hopefully become) a franchise and also tell a complete tale; but the original Superman and the more recent X-Men both did a better job than Raimi here.

This is because the Green Goblin is simply not a convincingly menacing character. For all of Dafoe’s impassioned acting against himself, the character is essentially a fixed green mask on a hoverboard. When Dafoe is arguing against the mask on the back of a comfy chair it is almost as if the chair is taunting him, and when the Goblin is in full action he resembles a fairly cheap Power Rangers villain.

Moreover, in flight the Green Goblin – Spider-Man too, unfortunately – shows up weaknesses in the film’s CGI: too often, the characters’ movements are jerky and stiff, not entirely human in appearance. Also, the light appears to come from several sources, which does not make the CGI unrealistic as such, but throws up very clearly the difference between when the characters are being represented by people in costumes and when it’s being done by computer ‘magic.’ You also have to wonder why (other than the obvious film-ending reason) the Green Goblin does not simply kill our hero when he drugs him and takes him onto a high roof to give him a lecture.

Other aspects of the film are far more successful, however. Maguire is a perfect balance of athleticism and goofiness for the role of Peter/Spider-Man, who never has the cocksure confidence of other superheroes; Dunst is sweet as MJ, with her own frustrations in life and pretty without seeming unobtainable – she also gets that iconic upside-down kiss – whilst J.K. Simmons is fantastic as the Bugle’s shoot-first-shout-later editor Mr Jameson. The climax, too, is carried out with some panache, Spidey forced to choose between a cable car full of children and Mary-Jane’s life.

That climax also shows up some cute writing, in that Spider-Man does not actually have to kill anyone, both Uncle Ben’s killer and the Goblin doing away with themselves. Harry’s discovery of Spider-Man returning his father’s dead body sets up future conflict nicely, and there is a nice note of self-sacrifice in Peter pushing MJ away. In fact, everything about Spider-Man sets up Spider-Man 2 for the terrific sequel it would prove to be; it is perhaps inevitable that with the job of providing the set-up, this movie would only be a qualified success.

Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Dastardly Dr Evil inflicts a fate worse than death on shagadelic British agent Austin Powers by going back to the 1960s and stealing the very thing that defines him – his ‘mojo’. Austin goes back to the 60s himself and teams up with foxy CIA operative Felicity Shagwell to retrieve it and stop Dr Evil’s plan for world domination, but the villain puts obstacles both big and small in their way.

By the 1990s James Bond had been so heavily parodied even some of the Bond films were little more than self-conscious send-ups of themselves (witness Roger Moore rustling up a meal in A View to a Kill). This being the case, the success of Mike Myers’ crooked-toothed secret agent Austin Powers in 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was something of a surprise; but a hit it was, and two years later came a sequel with the Bond-referring title The Spy Who Shagged Me. Not a particularly clever pun, you may think: but sort of funny nonetheless.

The film begins (after a Star Wars-style scrolling recap) with Austin on his honeymoon and alarmed to discover that his new bride Vanessa (Liz Hurley, thankfully in the briefest of cameos) is in fact just another of Dr Evil’s ‘fembots’, but he escapes to enjoy being newly single and do battle with his old nemesis, last seen in a Big Boy in space. Dr Evil (Myers again, of course) has not been idle (in an odd piece of product placement, his corporation runs Starbucks) and whilst he has not patched up relations with sulky son Scott (Seth Green), he has created both a “time machine” (his quotes, not mine) and a 1/8 scale version of himself called ‘Mini-Me’ (Verne Troyer).

He also has a fiendish plan: he will travel back to 1969 and employ inside man ‘Fat Bastard’ (Myers, in acres of latex) to rob the cryogenically-frozen Austin Powers of his mojo, thereby stopping the swinging spy in his tracks. The ploy is immediately successful, forcing modern-day Austin – with the help of the ever-useful Basil Exposition (Michael York) – to travel back in time himself to find Dr Evil’s volcano lair and stop the next, more predictable phase of his plan, ie. to hold the world to ransom with the aid of a moon-based laser dubbed (to Scott’s derision) “The Alan Parsons Project”.

Austin is not alone in his quest, as he is sought out by shapely CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) and the pair find there’s a mutual attraction. However, since Powers has lost his powers and Basil needs Felicity to get up close and personal with Fat Bastard in order to track down Dr Evil, Austin has more than the mere pursuit of a madman on his mind as he infiltrates Evil’s hideaway.

It’s pretty standard practice for a sequel to re-tread or reverse the plot of its predecessor and in this respect Austin’s journey back to the 60s is a case of more of the same. Austin’s catchphrases are present and correct and the banter between Evil and his various cronies is much as it was in International Man of Mystery (although Rob Lowe amusingly takes Robert Wagner’s place for much of the movie as a young No. 2). There is also a preponderance of toilet humour and much juvenile sniggering about sexual organs, plus a shadow trick which, though spiced up, is as old as the hills; even the Bond spoofing borders on being overly self-conscious (Austin watches In Like Flint, so at least the film acknowledges its debts).

In between, however, are some very good innovations: Mini-Me is hilariously deviant and although he’s appallingly treated in the final reel, Troyer appears to be game so complaints about a lack of political correctness are redundant; there is also fun to be had with the identity of Scott Evil’s mother (step forward an excellent Mindy Sterling as Frau Farbissina). On Austin’s side, the time travel conundrums (with the obvious nods to Back to the Future) are swept lightly away by Basil, and in Felicity Austin has a feistier and more believable ally than Liz Hurley ever was. Heather Graham is by no means the world’s greatest actress, but at least she’s an actress* and looks amazing in 60s gear and her Dr No-style white bikini – Myers looks rather less amazing in his. It was also nice to see Elvis Costello pop up to accompany Burt Bacharach.

One innovation that isn’t so welcome is Fat Bastard, an obscene, greasy character with no redeeming features whatsoever, save for audience members who find the line ‘I ate a baby!’ priceless. He does have that gross-out value, but he doesn’t really fit in with the tenor of the rest of the film and I found myself looking away most of the time he appeared on-screen.

The introduction of a third character for Myers smacks of the actor trying to ensure he bags every laugh in the film, a feeling strengthened by the late appearance of two Austins (one from ‘ten minutes from now’) engaging in mutual admiration. And in Dr Evil’s ever lengthier talks with his cronies there’s a hint of the indulgence that would sink the next sequel, Goldmember: yes, it’s passingly amusing, but Evil’s rendition of Just the Two of Us adds nothing to the film in terms of advancing the plot.

By and large, though, The Spy Who Shagged Me moves plenty quickly enough and has enough jokes that stick to make it a very enjoyable watch. Familiarity with the characters, good casting and an improved production budget (there’s some good stuff in space) ensure that this is the best of the Austin Powers series by some margin, even if it hints within itself that Powers is a two-movie joke at most. You won’t learn much about yourself whilst watching it, except for your personal limits about tastelessness, since (like the title) it’s not a clever movie: but it’s funny nonetheless.

NOTES: Yes, I may be taking my prejudice a bit far. See my review of Bedazzled.