The Hurt Locker

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: The tragic death of a bomb disposal expert in Iraq brings a new face to Bravo Company. However, unlike his predecessor, Sgt James walks relentlessly towards grave danger, much to the dismay of colleagues Sanborn and Eldridge who rather fancy surviving their tour of duty. As the days tick down, James can’t help but involve himself – and others – in potentially lethal situations.

The curse of the roadside bomb is a constant hazard in and around Baghdad, as Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) discovers to his cost. Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) is devastated to lose his friend, while Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) carries the guilt of not preventing the tragedy around with him. The pair are partially consoled by the fact that Bravo Company have only 38 days left in Iraq, but the arrival of Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner) in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team shakes up their careful, methodical ways.

Ignoring the unit’s robot, James puts on the blast suit and snips away at wires first, unconcerned for his own safety and that of his colleagues, who immediately fear for their own lives. They even wonder whether, given the inevitability of James getting them all killed, it would be preferable to save themselves by killing him first. Not that, given James’ habit of going beyond his missions to find answers, he doesn’t give plenty of opportunities to the US Army’s enemies.

Appreciating films ‘properly’ is often a matter of timing. What that specifically means here is that I should ideally have watched The Hurt Locker before contemporaries such as The Men Who Stare at Goats and Green Zone, and before the hoo-hah surrounding the Best Picture nominations given to Bigelow and ex-husband James Cameron. Because I didn’t manage that, I arrived at the film with certain expectations that – to be fair – are mostly met: Iraq (this time, actually Jordan) is presented as a chaotic, searingly hot place, its buildings bombed-out and/or bullet-ridden, Baghdad’s citizens interfering or desperately trying to turn the situation to their advantage.

The action is filmed in the uneasy, shifting style of Green Zone, too, the handheld camera bringing the viewer into the action as we nervously look towards the sinisterly static watchers, uncertain (like Sanford and Eldridge) whether they are holding remote detonators. The film deftly exploits the tension of bomb disposal, and when bombs go off, the explosions are filmed with some stunning slow-motion photography.

Yet The Hurt Locker is much more than the standard Why are we here?/My ‘friends’ are as likely to kill me as my enemies/War is Hell movie. Indeed, the film explicitly states that ‘War is a drug’, and as Kathryn Bigelow draws out both action and characterisation in extraordinarily long scenes (my mind having been conditioned by decades of ADHD editing), we see that this is certainly the case for James. His bravado initially comes across as recklessness, or perhaps a deathwish; but as we discover more about him and his colleagues, we discover that beyond the cigarette-smoking pursuit of cool is a complicated man, with a failed marriage at home and reminders of the bombs he’s defused under the bed.

His relationship with Sanford and Eldridge is also well developed, the film giving plenty of time to their violent social interactions, to Sanford’s desire for a family and to Eldridge’s conversations with his confessor, Colonel Cambridge (Christian Camargo). Writer Mark Boal consistently and cleverly subverts the viewers’ expectations; at first, James’ friendship with a soccer-playing lad called Beckham (Christopher Sayegh) seems like a facile and sentimental touch, but it becomes an essential part of the plot, which shifts in unexpected and uncomfortable, gruesome ways.

The brief, uneasy section of the James family’s home life approaches genius, as does the grim comedy of the final caption: here’s a man who loves the idea of having a son to go back to, but finds that his life only has meaning on duty, not among the mundane choices of suburban day-to-day existence. Which is not to say that everything works – the episode with Ralph Fiennes’ contractors goes on much, much too long and fails to say much about the mercenary private operators attached to the war – but on the whole, the film does its job brilliantly. I’ve not mentioned the actors, but it’s not because of any deficiencies on their part; rather, it’s because they inhabit their roles so well – Renner is particularly fine.

The Hurt Locker isn’t a film which tries to say anything particularly profound about the Iraq War, or war in particular; and experts may nitpick about the realism or otherwise of what it portrays. On the other hand, it does provide a superbly-filmed and acted insight into the work of an astonishingly brave group of men, also revealing conflicts between colleagues and exploring their troubled minds. A superior film in every respect and one which, it goes without saying, kicks Avatar’s dumb blue ass from here to next week.

Monty Python’s Meaning of Life

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Older but no wiser, the Monty Python gang assemble to mull over the seven ages of man and wonder what life is all about.

If ever a series of films cried out to be described by the word ‘trajectory’, it’s the work of the Pythons. And Now For Something Completely Different saw the boys – plus stalwart Carol Cleveland – naively commit a number of TV sketches to celluloid; in Holy Grail, they learnt about filmcraft and sustaining a joke over feature length; and in Life of Brian, they assembled a near-perfect combination of script, acting and design. Unfortunately, there really was only one way to go from such a high watermark.

But first of all, here’s a brief outline of the film’s contents: Meaning of Life opens with a Terry Gilliam short, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, a (largely Pythonless) tale of oppressed English bankers turned renegade financial pirates, before it begins in earnest with two differing versions of birth – a satire on the impersonal nature of modern hospitals, followed by a scathing attack on Catholic contraceptive policy, leavened by the wonderful show tune ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’.

The film then highlights typically British reactions to school life and sex education before moving on to War, taking a break for a surreal game of ‘Find the Fish’ in the middle of the film. Next up is the disturbing ‘Live Organ Transplants’, leading into ‘The Galaxy Song’ and perhaps the film’s most memorable sketch, Terry Jones’ extraordinarily gross ‘Mr Creosote’. All that remains is Death, the Grim Reaper turning up to spoil a dinner party and escort the disgruntled guests to a gaudy afterlife, where every day is Christmas Day.

The good news is that when inspiration strikes, the Monty Python team can still deliver the goods. ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’ is a brilliant take-off of Oliver! which benefits from Michael Palin’s improved acting chops and Terry Jones’ increased experience at directing, while ‘Mr Creosote’ manages to push at the limits of taste and still be extremely funny, thanks largely to John Cleese’s turn as the unflappable waiter (the question ‘Wafer thin mint?’ will haunt dinner tables for decades to come). Eric Idle’s Noel Coward impression is also very funny. The Middle of the Film is a refreshing bit of meaningless foolishness, while Gilliam’s not-so-short short is a nice concept which also foreshadows Brazil; that is, when it’s not sneaking its way into the main feature.

Sadly, that’s about it for the good news. For one thing, the reversion to a sketch format feels like – and is – a real regression, while the script falters whenever it shoehorns in the titular unifying theme, which feels like – and was – an afterthought. For another, the quality of some of the sketches just isn’t up to snuff: for example Palin’s shouty Sergeant Major, the extremely juvenile execution by nearly-nude women, or the meandering contributions by Jones and Idle in the aftermath of Mr Creosote’s demise; and for another thing besides, there are too many musical numbers, as though Idle was desperate to repeat the impact of ‘Always Look on The Bright Side of Life’.

But more than any of this, the major issue with Meaning of Life is that for a comedy movie, it’s pretty bloody gloomy. I like black comedy as much as the next man, but such a bleak, jaded air hangs over many of the sketches that the natural reaction is not to laugh but to despair – ‘Live Organ Transplants’ is one example, the ‘Suicidal Leaves’ animation and what follows afterwards another. That said, I like the ghost cars, and the excruciating climactic cabaret of ‘Christmas in Heaven’ is an over-produced treat.

Other than that, there’s not an awful lot to be said. Each of the troupe have their moments but fail to shine as they did in previous films, apparently muted by not having meatier, longer-lasting characters to develop; and the whole project is dominated by a feeling that it was pushed kicking and screaming into the world, only the promise of a decent payday forcing the Pythons to keep going in the face of mostly mediocre material. The Meaning of Life is the most cinematic Python film by a long chalk; it’s very occasionally brilliant and often quite clever, in a cynical way – the Grand Jury at Cannes liked it well enough in 1983. But it doesn’t half make you yearn for the innocent days of the Fish Slapping Dance.

Role Models

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Colleagues Danny and Wheeler are faced with a terrifying choice when Danny’s poor reaction to his break-up with girlfriend Beth lands them in trouble with the law: go to prison, or complete 150 hours of community service with kids in need of adult friends. The prospect of prison is unthinkable, but when the ‘Bigs’ meet their ‘Littles’, it starts to look like the less scary option.

Energy drink promoters Danny and Wheeler (Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott) may share a stage – Wheeler in a Minotaur outfit – an anti-drugs message and a ridiculous monster truck, but personality-wise they’re chalk and cheese. Wheeler’s a non-stop partying (yes, that’s a euphemism) dude, while Danny’s ten years in the job have turned him into a boring misanthrope. Lawyer girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks) can take no more of Danny’s whinging (or his ill-thought-out marriage proposal) and ends the relationship, causing him to wrap the truck around a statue, with Wheeler implicated in the crime.

With Beth’s reluctant assistance, they’re given an option to avoid jail by enrolling on the ‘Sturdy Wings’ programme overseen by eccentric coordinator Gayle Sweeny (Jane Lynch); the programme involves the adults – ‘bigs’ – spending time with and notionally looking after youngsters – ‘littles’ – and how hard can it be to do that for 150 hours? Well, if the little is like Wheeler’s, a foul-mouthed kid with serious attitude called Ronnie (Bobb’e (?!) J. Thompson), or like Danny’s charge, nebbish live-roleplayer Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the answer is ‘very hard indeed’, though the clueless adults don’t exactly help themselves.

It might be an unimaginative PR trick to summarise any movie as ‘film x’ meets ‘film y’, but it’s practically irresistible to describe Role Models as The 40 Year-Old Virgin meets the American Pie series with a bit of Superbad thrown in. From The 40 Year-Old Virgin, we have Rudd playing downbeat and Lynch abusing her position of authority; from American Pie we have Scott’s slight variation on Stifler and a variation of Stifler’s younger brother in sex-obsessed Ronnie; and from Superbad we have Mintz-Plasse (easily the best thing about that film), Joe Lo Truglio hamming it up and a strange obsession with drawing penises.

Role Models’ four writers present a messy amalgamation of its forebears with results that are mostly predictable: it’s massively sweary, every expletive coming out of Thompson’s mouth making me die a little; it’s ridiculously broad, most notably in supporting characters such as A. D. Miles’ endlessly irritating ‘Big’ Martin and Augie’s dreadful mother and stepfather; and it’s unflinchingly sexist, with a regrettable objectification of women and, unsurprisingly, a few bare breasts. Though Banks plays the part brightly, Beth is particularly poorly served by a script which has her falling in and out of love with Danny for the flimsiest of reasons.

Yet while it always flirts heavily with crassness and unoriginality, Role Models miraculously comes up, for the most part, smelling of roses. The overall story arc is quite sweet – Ronnie teaches Wheeler to take responsibility for his actions, Augie teaches Danny to set his imagination free – and the interactions between the adults and the children feel natural and organic. Thompson manages to insert a sliver of vulnerability into a part that could easily have been repulsive, while Rudd and Scott collectively muster the presence of a leading man and Jane Lynch, in a relatively prominent role, balances deftly on the fringes of improvisation and indiscipline.

The main reason Role Models works, however, is because of Mintz-Plasse; his Augie is painfully shy in the real world, a noble, honest warrior in the role-playing realms of LAIRE*, and the viewer really feels for him as he struggles to woo the fair Esplen (Allie Stamler) and defeat haughty King Argotron (Ken Jeong). Like Danny, we start off laughing at Augie, his friends and his dress-up games; by the end, if we’re not quite slapping on the KISS make-up and charging into battle ourselves, we have warmed to all the lead characters.

It helps that the dialogue is full of sharp little gags: Augie’s speech about Marvin Hamlisch, Wheeler’s ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ confusion, Danny’s sour observations about the ridiculous names given to big cups of coffee, Ronnie consistently calling Danny ‘Ben Affleck’. Sure, these jokes are scattered between repetitive ‘I’m not reacting to that’ face-pulling and puerile, laddish nonsense; but if you ignore the stuff that’s meant to be funny, there’s a pretty funny film here.

Role Models advertises itself as a lewd, crude knockabout comedy for the lads, and in part that’s what you get. However, ultimately people didn’t love The 40 Year-Old Virgin because of its nudity or profanity; they loved it because there was a touching human story at its centre – alright, and some outrageously funny waxing. If Rudd, Scott, Thompson et al can’t quite match up to Steve Carell’s wonderful warmth, they can be thankful that Mintz-Plasse gives the film all the heart – and many of the laughs – it needs.

NOTES: I shared a flat with a live role-player for a while. I wouldn’t seek to generalise, but this particular gentleman’s fanatical devotion to his pastime came at the expense of most other things, specifically personal hygiene.

Frozen

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Elsa’s magical abilities with snow and ice come at the heavy price of loneliness for her and younger sister Anna. When Elsa’s coronation results in the revelation of her secret, she flees, causing a perpetual winter that paralyses the kingdom of Arendelle. Anna must use all of her resourcefulness, and seek help from some strange companions, to find her newly-free sibling.

Like most sisters, Elsa and Anna, princesses of Arendelle, love playing with each other; however, Anna has special reason to love Elsa, as the older girl can magic up snow and ice from her hands at will. An accident injures Anna and although she’s healed by mountain trolls (who also remove her memories of Elsa’s gift), the King and Queen are scared enough to close their castle gates and separate Elsa from Anna. Even the loss of the parents doesn’t reunite the girls, with Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) reaching out to Elsa (Idina Menzel) only to be rebuffed.

Coronation day arrives and Anna can’t wait to meet people, while Elsa can only repeat the mantra ‘conceal, don’t feel’ in an attempt to control her growing powers. Anna meets the handsome prince Hans (Santino Fontana) and they seize the moment by agreeing to marry; Elsa, however, refuses to give her blessing and, as Anna argues, Elsa’s magic bursts out, plunging Arendelle into a freezing winter. Elsa flees to the mountains to embrace her freedom, while Anna races after her, forced to lean on ice harvester Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his friendly reindeer Sven for support; they encounter charmingly naïve snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) on the way. Surely Hans will only think of Anna’s well-being as he assumes control of Arendelle on her behalf? And surely learning of Arendelle’s plight will be enough to bring Elsa back to make things right?

There are so many pleasures, great and small, to be found in Frozen that it’s tempting to do nothing but list the good stuff. More than anything, the characters really live in both the excellent vocal work and expressive animation, from fretful Elsa and the wonderfully optimistic Anna – estranged sisters with thoroughly believable emotions – to surly Kristoff and too-good-to-be-true Hans, plus the fascinating quirks of Olaf and minor players such as Wandering Oaken and the Duke of Weselton.

The screenplay for the most part treads exactly the right path, providing laughs, scares and (forgive me, no other phrase will do) heart-warming entertainment that can truly be enjoyed by all ages, bolstered by witty and tuneful songs. The climax in particular provides high-quality drama, with a novel denouement that subverts the traditions of resolution through ‘true love’, supplying a message without being at all heavy-handed.

Frozen is amusing, moving, thrilling and charming by turns, and then – of course – it has its Big Moment. Let it Go is the showstopper to end all showstoppers, a stirring, powerful number that begins with Elsa’s despair and builds – lyrically, musically and visually – to a defiant statement of self-empowerment. It’s really that good, and if it doesn’t quite have the bounce of the similarly-themed Hakuna Matata or the warmth of Beauty and the Beast’s main theme, a billion girls and boys will tell you that it’s as catchy as hell.

All of which said, as someone who’s seen Wicked, it would be remiss not to mention Let it Go’s relationship to that musical’s Big Moment, Defying Gravity. I don’t think you could reasonably accuse the writers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez of copying Stephen Schwartz’s music or lyrics; but there is a definite sense that both songs are serving exactly the same self-affirmative purpose within the larger piece. How much this sense is driven by Idina Menzel’s soaring voice, and how much by conscious decisions on where the story should go, is anyone’s guess.

Futhermore, while it’s not the case that the song is too good for the rest of the movie, Let it Go certainly casts a long shadow over the remaining musical numbers: Olaf’s In Summer is good fun but comes at a point where the film doesn’t need to stop for yet another song, while Fixer Upper has a host of issues. Musically, it’s a strange, frenetic mixture of gospel, show tune, all kinds of chord changes and everything bar the kitchen sink; and its (perfectly decent) lyrics and upbeat tone are at complete odds with what’s happening to Anna, as demonstrated by the jarring gear shift as soon as it finishes. Frozen could easily be 10-15 minutes shorter without losing anything of real significance.

I’m not too keen on the duets (if that’s the term) where Anna and Elsa are singing their own lines in the same song either, but that’s by comparison with great examples such as The Confrontation in Les Mis.

I do have other nits to pick – specifically, I’m not convinced by Kristoff being ‘adopted’ by the trolls (where were his parents?) – but these have to be seen in the context of an overwhelmingly positive experience, and one which (amazingly) doesn’t pall on repeat viewings. Weary adults may feel the need to pop out of the room from time to time, but in general you’d have to have a cold, cold heart not to get a kick out of Frozen.

Run, Fatboy, Run

WFTB Score: 5/20

The plot: Slobbish security guard Dennis Doyle is going nowhere, and not just because he’s out of shape. Five years ago he left his pregnant fiancée Libby at the altar, and he’s regretted it ever since; so when Libby appears on the arm of a successful, fit American called Whit, he is spurred on to run a marathon. Just one niggling issue: the race is four weeks away and he’s never run properly in his life.

I’ll let you into a little inside-the-box secret: occasionally, in fact increasingly since I’ve had to (figuratively) go out and sing for my supper, I don’t get round to reviewing a film until a few days after I’ve seen it. Being a man who cares about the accuracy of what he says, I generally like to literally re-view the film, even if half of it is on fast-forward, to confirm my opinions; but with Run, Fatboy, Run (watched about three weeks ago) I’m pretty sure I can do the film justice without seeing it again. Hopefully, ever.

Simon Pegg is Dennis Doyle, an unfit, cigarette-addicted security guard for a tiny lingerie store, living in a dingy basement flat below his landlord Mr Goshdashtidar (Harish Patel) and only just scraping a living. Dennis’ life has been defined by his cowardice five years previously when he ran away from his own wedding and marriage to Libby (Thandie Newton), at the time carrying their son Jake (Matthew Fenton).

Although relations between them are amicable for Jake’s sake, there seems to be little chance of the couple giving it another go; and when suave American banker Whit (Hank Azaria) appears on the scene, all hope is lost. At least Whit appears to be a good guy, considerate towards Jake and super-fit, but that doesn’t stop Dennis from moaning about him to his friend and Libby’s cousin Gordon (Dylan Moran), a hopeless gambler in hock to a shady group of ‘friends’, including smalltime gangster Vincent (Simon Day).

Having been humiliated by Whit whilst trying to get Jake tickets for the Lord of the Rings musical (remember that?), Dennis resolves to prove himself to Jake and Libby by playing Whit at his favourite game – ironically, running. Gordon makes a potentially lucrative but fantastically dangerous bet with Vincent and backs Dennis to complete a marathon in London by coaching him, Mr Goshdashtidar providing extra, painful motivation; however, Whit takes the wind out of his sails by proposing to Libby in grand style on her birthday, and when it comes to the race itself, Whit will go to absolutely any lengths not to be outshone.

Run, Fatboy, Run employs a comedy formula that was quite entertainingly adapted for jobless Northerners in The Full Monty but was already horribly hackneyed by the time it was used in the boorish Beerfest. Not that it needs repeating, but here it is anyway: a lovable loser at a dead end has his inadequacies rubbed in his face by someone successful but psychologically flawed, who probably also has a place in the affections of our loser’s true love (there needn’t be a kid as well, but there often is). The loser decides he’s going to get himself into shape by challenging – at ho-ho-hopeless odds – his rival at the thing his rival does best; and even though there are setbacks, and the plucky loser may or may not succeed in the specific challenge, he will reveal his enemy’s flaw and succeed in both love and life, as he has learnt valuable life lessons just by rising to the challenge.

This being the case, it’s up to Michael Ian Black as writer, Pegg as actor and co-writer, and Friends star Schwimmer as director, to breathe life, energy and jokes into a potentially over-familiar tale. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are not up to this challenge and the result is a stale, predictable lump of a film. I’m a fan of Pegg, but neither his character nor those he has a hand in creating feel like they have any connection with real people, particularly British ones. Libby has very little motivation of her own, Gordon is a lazy combination of Moran’s standard persona and Rhys Ifans’ Spike from Notting Hill, and Whit reveals a nasty streak which is utterly predictable yet out of character with what we’ve seen of him previously.

Worse, most of the film’s jokes fail to rise above the juvenile, lacking the invention of Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz (the latter film was prepared to try things, even if they didn’t all come off). Instead, there’s a procession of groin rubbing, blister bursting, naked bottoms and swearing in English, Asian or children’s voices, all of which is okay for a brief chuckle but hardly a platform for a feature film.

As director, Schwimmer shows very little story-telling flair, resorting to flashbacks within a quarter of an hour, a by-the-numbers training montage and a thuddingly literal interpretation of the ‘wall’ that runners face. He also opts for a typical American realisation of the race, interpreted through TV pundits who are stiff as boards: Denise Lewis and Chris Hollins are hardly big stars, so why not invent some commentators with character?

He also has Libby and Jake jumping away from the over-the-top television coverage to be at the event, a touch owing more than a little to The Truman Show. Finally, there’s the ubiquitous and thoroughly obnoxious product placement which must have paid for a fair slice of the production costs but pervades to a distracting degree; if the idea is to mimic the flavour and colour of the real London Marathon, Schwimmer fails dismally by covering everything in a garish orange.

Actually, if I absolutely had to watch Run, Fatboy, Run again, it wouldn’t be a complete disaster. It has a few funny moments, though these are everything to do with Pegg, Moran and Azaria’s talents as comedians rather than anything the director or script can bring to the party. Watching it for a second time, I’d know exactly how it all pans out. Unfortunately, I had guessed to the last detail how it would pan out within five minutes of watching it for the first time.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Uptight marketing executive Neal Page, desperate to fly from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving, is thrown into company with slobbish shower curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith. The flight home curtailed, the two men endure each other’s company as they try to get back to their families by any means they can.

John Hughes, best known as writer of teen-centred movies like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, here writes and sits in the director’s chair for a film focusing on two very different adults’ efforts to get back to Chicago in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. Although family is the core theme and motivation behind the story, giving the film something of the feel of updated Frank Capra, it wisely avoids showing too much of the family eagerly awaiting Daddy, concentrating instead on the tribulations of the mismatched travellers.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is essentially a two-hander, pitting Steve Martin’s repressed achiever Neal Page against John Candy’s affable average Joe, Del Griffith. The two are chalk and cheese and most of the comedy comes not from the outlandish situations they find themselves in – though these are plenty funny – but the relationship they develop through the nightmare journey. At times content to rub along together, at others rubbing each other up the wrong way, Martin and Candy are chalk and cheese, and inspired casting. Martin explodes with apoplectic rage when the world doesn’t work exactly as it should; Candy rolls with the punches and, for a very good reason, lets nothing upset him. But more of that later.

From the start, Griffith gets in Page’s way, Del’s trunk causing Neal to lose a taxi to the airport. The flight they both ultimately get is re-routed and circumstances lead to both men staying in the same hotel room overnight. This whole scene sets the film up beautifully, as the pair first display their resentment towards each other, then cosy up unconsciously overnight. The reaction of the men to discovering their intimacy next morning (Martin: ‘Those aren’t PILLOWS!!’) is fondly remembered as a classic scene in film comedy.

The tortuous progress home contains a lot of laughs and not too much contrivance (the swapped credit cards and young burglar spring to mind), but one scene, at the car rental desk, sticks out as out of character with the rest of the film. Martin’s constant swearing when venting his suppressed fury at the desk clerk was something I had not seen before – the film is usually considered suitable for early evening broadcast, with this bit heavily edited – and the joke adds very little, in my opinion. If the rest of the film were like Trainspotting it would be entirely in context, but then it would be an entirely different sort of movie.

Anyway, it’s not all laughs. The tragedy behind Candy’s character is not that he will be late to see his family, but that he does not have a family to see, his beloved wife having passed away eight years previously. Hughes displays his skill as a writer in dropping clues throughout that lead the viewer and Neal to this discovery at about the same time; and it is a testament to John Candy that he conveys and conceals this sadness at the same time as, on the surface, coming across as a good-natured oaf.

It’s a triumph, too, that the story is resolved without dissolving into hopelessly mawkish sentimentality; and whilst schmaltz isn’t entirely avoided (would the Pages really welcome a stranger into their house with open arms?), none of the emotion is forced on the viewer, Martin and Candy showing restraint and honesty which marks them out as not only great comic actors, but good actors full stop. While the film is perfect viewing for ‘The Holidays,’ the two central performances make Planes, Trains and Automobiles a worthwhile experience at any time.

Gods and Monsters

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: James Whale, the revered, retired and increasingly frail director of the famous ‘Frankenstein’ films, looks back on his life and loves under the disapproving gaze of his severe housekeeper. His young gardener agrees to sit to be painted by Whale and is fascinated by the man, but remains unsure of his motives.

Bill Condon’s film, from Christopher Bram’s novel, is an intimate affair, focusing mainly on the last few weeks in the life of troubled film director James Whale (played by Ian McKellen). Whale has survived a tough, working-class English upbringing and the displeasure of his father to become a man of fine tastes and vision – he directed the first film version of Show Boat, after all – but all anyone really wants to know about, including a gauche young student who comes to interview him, is the schlocky Frankenstein films he turned out.

Naturally, this is the last thing Whale himself wants to discuss so he makes his own fun by making the poor young man strip (not that, as it happens, he particularly minds); however, when Whale suffers a stroke it becomes clear that he is seriously ill, and we find out that only strong medication is keeping his mind from being flooded with a hundred thoughts at once.

Despite his infirmity, Whale becomes interested in his gardener, an ex-marine called Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser). Boone is avowedly heterosexual yet the pair strike up an awkward friendship when Boone consents to be painted by the director. However, the portrait is destined never to be completed, either because Boone is freaked out by the old man’s lurid stories, or Whale is irritated by the youngster’s brashness. Overseeing them both is stern East European maid Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), who frets for her master’s soul as much as for the propriety of the goings-on within the house.

The description of the film as ‘intimate’ works on two levels: the film details both characters’ love lives closely, giving them and the viewer insights into both homosexual and heterosexual love; also, the film for the most part feels quite small, spent largely within Whale’s house, although there are occasional flashbacks to Whale’s life as a boy, as a soldier in the (so-called) Great War, and even a few recreations of the filming of Bride of Frankenstein, plus an entertaining visit to a party thrown by George Cukor and patronised by Princess Margaret, where Whale embarrasses the still-working (so still in the closet) director and faces his own monsters when brought face-to-face with Boris Karloff and other stars from his films.

As the film progresses, attempts are made to link the theme of Frankenstein with the director’s own predicament: ‘Alone: bad. Friend: Good.’ These are largely successful, and the tale Whale tells of his lover Barnett being snagged on barbed wire, his body visible for weeks after his death, is very moving, but it does mean that the film verges on being talky for much of its running time, concentrating on the characters’ feelings rather than their actions.

Accordingly, it is vital that the acting is of good quality and Ian McKellen is gloriously fruity as Whale, leering over young flesh with a keen eye whilst retaining the frailties of his situation. Redgrave is also excellent, and whilst Fraser is comparatively lumpy (his explanation about why he is a marine in name only fails to move as much as Whale’s stories) he does everything that is asked of him and is convincing enough when he finally rejects both Whale’s advances and his drastic request.

Gods and Monsters is a fine little film which tells a touching and finally tragic story of a man whose cult success overshadowed the films he regarded as his classics. As long as you don’t expect anything more of it, and as long as you realise exactly what you’re letting yourself in for, you are likely to find this both informative and enjoyable. Even if it’s not your thing, Sir Ian’s performance alone makes it worth a watch.