Elf

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: When Buddy the Elf finds out that he’s really a human put up for adoption as an infant, he leaves the safety of the North Pole for the rough and tumble of New York to find his unknowing father, Walter. Buddy finds friends and enemies aplenty in the Big Apple but the one thing he desperately wants – his Dad’s approval – is harder to come by.

Buddy (Will Ferrell) isn’t like the other elves. For one thing, he doesn’t possess the nimble fingers that the others in Santa’s workshop use to churn out toys for Christmas; for another, he’s about two feet taller than them, even his own father Papa Elf (Bob Newhart). Still, Buddy is blissfully unaware that he’s a human who crawled into Santa’s sack as a baby, until events force Papa Elf to spill the beans and reveal that Buddy’s real father, children’s publisher Walter Hobbs (James Caan), is alive in New York.

Remaining as good-natured as ever, Buddy sets off with encouragement and advice from Father Christmas (Ed Asner) and other well-wishers, undaunted by issues that would put off less positive souls: firstly, Buddy’s real dad now has a family of his own and doesn’t know that Buddy was ever born; secondly, Walter is cynical, work-centred and firmly on Santa’s Naughty list.

Arriving through the Lincoln tunnel, Buddy is charmed by New York but his first meeting with Walter at his office in the Empire State Building is less than successful, though luckily his elf outfit leads him (briefly) to a job in the department store across the road where he meets lovely but shy songbird Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and causes a ruckus with a fake Father Christmas. Meanwhile, continued meetings with Walter lead to Buddy being taken in by his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen); but while Buddy becomes friends with his streetwise half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay), and miraculously gets a date with Jovie, relations with Walter remain frosty, not helped when Buddy causes chaos at work. Just when Buddy feels most rejected, a familiar face appears in desperate need of some know-how when it comes to raising Christmas cheer.

Should you wish to, it’s quite easy to take Elf apart and discover its workings; for Christmas films mine such a rich vein of sentimentality that original ideas are as scarce as genuine sightings of Santa, and Favreau’s film, with a screenplay by David Berenbaum, brings little truly new to the party. The plot is a solid amalgamation of ideas from such films as Santa Claus: The Movie and Miracle on 34th Street with Buddy adding the Pollyanna-ish qualities of Steve Martin’s character from The Jerk and Zooey Deschanel providing an off-the-shelf love interest (we hardly discover anything about her, other than that she likes to sing).

The fact that none of this seems to matter can be put down almost completely to Will Ferrell’s superb rendering of Buddy: he’s a big, lovable lump with a heart of gold, providing enormous helpings of physical comedy but never coming across as moronic. And while there’s no danger of Ferrell underplaying the part (as if he could), there is also a complete absence of cynicism or awareness of the artifice of the situation, either of which would have ruined the movie. With Ferrell in top form, dependable stars like Asner and Newhart also shine; Caan too is impressive, never relinquishing his hard personality, just bending to the extraordinary events he finds himself caught up in.

Elf’s absolute lack of cynicism leaves plenty of room for silly fun, such as Buddy’s encounter with Peter Dinklage’s writer of restricted size, Miles Finch, and lots of interaction between Buddy and Michael; it also has some truly surreal moments, mostly involving stop-motion characters at the North Pole such as Leon [Redbone] the Snowman and my own favourite, Mr Narwhal. And when it comes to the rousing climax – Santa’s stranded in Central Park and needs Buddy and his new family to create belief in him to raise the ‘Clausometer’ – the film manages to be both sweet and uplifting without ever becoming gooey, a trick that helps to overcome the undercooked nature of Buddy and Jovie’s love story and the forced drama of making Central Park Rangers the bad guys.

The trick is done, by the way, with clever writing and direction that provides distractions for all ages – for example, the grainy footage of Buddy walking through the woods will be eerily-familiar to most adults, though many will take a while to realise why.

Elf, then, is by no means a great departure from the Christmas film norm, confirming as it does the importance of putting family first and approaching life with a good, clean heart. But by acknowledging the syrupy nature of the subject matter in literal terms, Ferrell, Favreau and co. have side-stepped the trap of becoming cloying and – with a few caveats – have made a film that will surely be on the Christmas Nice list for years to come.

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EuroTrip

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Dumped by his girlfriend, high school graduate Scotty compounds his misery by rejecting the advances of German pen-pal Mieke. However, when he learns that Mieke is not a man but a beautiful woman, he drops everything to find her, resulting in a chaotic introduction to the charms of Europe.

The humiliations just keep piling up for young Scotty (Scott Mechlowicz). Ditched on graduation day by girlfriend Fiona (Kristin Kreuk), she cosies up to rock singer Matt Damon while he belts out the salacious tune ‘Scotty Doesn’t Know’ to Scott’s scoffing classmates. His German pen-pal Mieke reacts to the news by threatening to come to America to comfort him, so in a drunken email Scott tells him to get lost; except that Mieke is not a he but a rather lovely she (Jessica Boehrs).

Determined to put things right, Scott teams up with best friend Cooper (Jacob Pitts) and heads for Berlin, though – predictably – it’s not quite as easy as that. To get to Europe cheaply they courier goods to London, stumbling into the drinking den of football hooligan Vinnie Jones and his cohorts, who – unpredictably – take the Americans under their wing; the whole gang travel to Paris, where the boys meet up with sightseeing twins Jamie and Jenny (Travis Wester and Michelle Trachtenberg) and Scotty kicks a robot mime in the nuts.

From there, the quartet visit Amsterdam, Bratislava (inadvertently) and finally get to Berlin, only to find that Mieke has gone to Rome to visit the Vatican. Scotty and co. head there immediately, causing mayhem within the Papal Residence as Scotty seeks his would-be Teutonic sweetheart.

EuroTrip could hardly be better designed to irritate me had its makers rung and asked what I didn’t like in films. In essence, it’s a well-worn, not to say threadbare, tale of a horny High School guy looking for sex, another Jason Biggs wannabe trying to get his end away like Get Over It/American Pie/a million other films. That old chestnut is coupled with the motif of ignorant Americans abroad in crazy old Europe; you know, the place with ‘crazy European sex’ and countries full of horrendous stereotypes, the ones we know from National Lampoon’s European Vacation, the later Deuce Bigalow European Gigolo and Beerfest and – in less comic fashion – The Rules of Attraction. And it’s all presented to appeal on the basest level to an audience of teenage boys for whom the insult ‘gay’ and the sight of bare breasts are, respectively, the funniest and sexiest things on the planet.

And – d’you know what? – It’s actually quite funny. The film is so wildly off about almost every aspect of European life that its jokes surely have to be deliberate, either to pander to US ignorance or deliberately to wind up European audiences (or both). I might be doing the writers too much credit, but there is such a sense of ridiculousness running through the film that it approaches a form of delirium.

Take the joke about Manchester United fans, for example: I’m almost totally certain that the writers haven’t got a bloody clue about football, since Vinnie Jones neither looks nor acts like a Manc. Are they making a clever joke about most Man U fans not coming from Manchester? Even if they aren’t, there’s something nicely surreal about the boys appeasing them with Sheena Easton songs.

Anyway, the British get off lightly compared to the insults heaped on poor old Slovakia, portrayed as a bombed-out wasteland where four people can live like royalty for less than $2; or the Vatican, where Scotty finds a new job and catches up with Mieke in a big way in a Confession booth.

Everyone should be offended by EuroTrip, but as I say, it gets so silly that taking offence almost becomes redundant. Even the sex and nudity is sort of based on equal opportunities – the group visit a nudist beach, solely occupied by naked men who didn’t read their guide books properly; and Cooper discovers that crazy European sex is more trouble than it’s worth, even if you do get to keep the T-shirt.

Of course, there’s nothing inspired about Fred Armisen’s smarmy Italian or Patrick Rapold’s suave, bisexual Frenchman, and the film allows itself too many crass touches – Scotty’s coarse younger brother (too reminiscent of American Pie), the boy playing at being Hitler, Jamie getting oral sex because the girl likes his camera – and some lax plotting (Jamie gladly handing over his security belt because he’s enjoying the oral sex so much).

However, these are balanced by some game performances, not least from Mechlowicz – not as bland as he first appears – and Michelle Trachtenberg, who provides the closest thing EuroTrip has to a Unique Selling Point. It helps immensely that Jenny is part of the group and joins in on the comedy, admittedly as well as being a bikini-wearing object of desire, in one scene to an entirely inappropriate member of the party. Her presence keeps the sexism in check and prevents the film from slipping into an endless parade of mindless, juvenile ogling. On top of that, there’s the sheer (pleasurable) shock of seeing Matt Damon as a pierced rocker, providing the film with its catchy running gag, the ubiquitous popularity of ‘Scotty Doesn’t Know’.

It seems that EuroTrip was undone at the cinema by a saturated gross-out market and the unfortunate timing of Pope John Paul II’s death; so perhaps the Catholic church had the last laugh after all. It’s rubbish, naturally, but it’s not nasty, demeaning rubbish like Superbad, and it contains the odd moment of inspiration amongst the clichés. By no means a tour de force, but unless you’re a particular prude (or a particularly proud Bratislavan), you should find something to laugh at.

Stranger than Fiction

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: The mundane life of IRS employee Harold Crick is turned upside-down when he starts hearing a voice in his head. The voice belongs to Karen Eiffel, who is writing a book with Harold as the main protagonist; unfortunately for Harold, not only does she have writer’s block, but she’s famous for killing off her main characters – just as he’s falling in love and starting to enjoy his life.

It seems unlikely that Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) would be the hero of anyone’s book, since – apart from having a talent, bordering on a penchant, for numbers – his life is thoroughly ordinary. He works for the IRS, lives alone, doesn’t really have a hobby or social life to speak of, save for his trusty watch. However, one morning his ablutions are disturbed by a voice in his head, narrating what he’s doing.

Naturally, his first instinct is that is that he’s going mad, which is unfortunate given that he’s auditing and falling for feisty baker Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a conscientious tax objector who also, understandably, objects to Harold ogling her. When the narrator reveals Harold’s deepest thoughts back to him and also the fact that he is marked for death, he’s alarmed and struck by the literary turn of the voice in his head (‘Little did he know…‘).

He shares his concerns with literature professor-cum-lifeguard Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who sceptically asks Harold to keep a tally of whether he’s in a tragedy or comedy. The results aren’t promising, even if Ana slowly softens to Harold’s uptight honesty. Anyway, the owner of the voice – writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) – is desperately researching ways to kill off her lead character. Can Harold reach her before she overcomes her mental block?

Authors will often say (I do, at any rate) that their characters ultimately take on lives of their own and will begin to make suggestions about what they’re going to do or say next, and this simple premise drives Stranger Than Fiction. It’s not particularly original – plenty of characters have confronted their creators – but Marc Forster’s film takes the idea and runs with it confidently and nimbly. It’s an idea which (like close cousin Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind*) only makes sense as long as you don’t prod it too hard – exactly when did Harold wink into existence, for example? – but the film manages to be clever without being clever-clever, by which I mean that it asks questions about the nature of fiction in books and film (neither Eiffel nor Hilbert are ‘real’, after all) without shouting from the rooftops that it’s doing it.

It’s cutely written as well: there’s a great verbal and visual pun which I won’t spoil for you. That said, the theme – if you have a life, make sure you go out and live it – is a pretty standard one in recent times, American Beauty being just the first example that came into my head: having your author narrate your mundanity to you is simply a novel (no pun intended, though it‘s rather a good one) way of announcing a mid-life crisis.

The appearance of a comic actor in a straight role is not the only feature of Stranger Than Fiction that brings The Truman Show to mind. Harold is almost a negative of Truman: where Carrey‘s character was a ‘real’ person living a fake life, Ferrell’s is a fictional character somehow living in the real world. Both undergo a revelation, a revolution in their lives, and come face to face with their ’Makers.’

It’s tempting to say that Eiffel beats Christof solely because she doesn’t wear a beret, but I won’t be so flippant. Neither will I reveal whether she ends the story as comedy or tragedy, but the denouement is both effective and touching. High praise must be given to Ferrell for reining in his natural exuberance, and while his chemistry with Gyllenhaal doesn’t exactly burn up the screen, she’s as sympathetic as I’ve seen her and they make for a sweet couple.

Hoffman plays his role effortlessly (I hope he works hard to make it look so easy, it would be annoying if he didn’t), while Emma Thompson is just wonderful as Karen Eiffel; her mannerisms and haunted expression bring enormous gravitas to the film, much needed since Hoffman is doing breezy and Farrell couldn’t do deep if he tried (neither of these things are criticisms, by the way).

Nonetheless, it’s not all good news. Though she’s perfectly decent, I saw no reason whatsoever for Queen Latifah’s character to be in the film. She plays Penny, a writer’s assistant who tries to nurse Karen’s book to completion, and for all the impact she has on the story Thompson might as well be talking to her semi-smoked cigarettes. Stranger Than Fiction is also enamoured of its own story, when Harold’s decision to live his life to the full is neither particularly profound, original, nor (to be honest) full – his relationship with Ana is lovely, if familiar, but the guitar playing doesn’t convince – so I’m not persuaded that Karen’s novel is quite the sensational tale Jules makes it out to be, even with its intended ending.

The film pulls a few fancy tricks that I’m not sure about, too: the graphic visualisations of Harold’s obsessive counting don’t add much, and while his wristwatch is incredibly cool – nay, heroic – its analogue/digital design has nothing to do with the story, so comes across as a gimmick for its own sake.

Let’s be clear about this, though. Stranger Than Fiction is no noble failure. It’s a success, albeit one with significant qualifications. At times it’s over-familiar, at others a bit slow; it’s also unbalanced and won’t do anything for you if you’re looking for a full-on Ferrell comedy. But it’s not a self-satisfied, introspective work either, so as long as you come prepared – don’t expect Elf II – there’s every chance you might really like this quietly provoking tale.

NOTES: The film could easily be a conservative work from Charlie Kaufman, a less fevered variation on Adaptation.

Emma

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Emma Woodhouse uses her privileged status to organise the lives of those around her; firstly approving the marriage of her governess to the widowed Mr Weston, then steering naïve Harriet Smith away from her humble suitor towards Mr Elton, the local vicar. Unfortunately, the scheme backfires when he declares his love to Emma instead; and her involvement in other social intrigues proves equally misjudged. Emma’s long-time friend Mr Knightley can only stand by and quietly despair.

With her governess (Greta Scacchi) newly married to Mr Weston (James Cosmo), the social world of Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) appears to be shrinking fast. She has care of her hypochondriac father (Denys Hawthorne), and fond acquaintance Mr Knightley (Jeremy Northam) is a regular visitor to Hartfield; but otherwise her days are spent administering charity to Mrs and Miss Bates (Phyllida Law and real-life daughter Sophie Thompson), the latter’s loquaciousness rendering her mum mute and Emma extremely impatient.

Little wonder, then, that she sees a project in gauche orphan Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), resolving to remove her affections from lowly farmer Robert Martin and transplant them to Mr Elton (Alan Cumming), who certainly likes hanging around the ladies. However, Elton amazes Emma by pressing himself on her and when she rebuffs him, he takes revenge by returning from Bath with an overbearing new wife (Juliet Stevenson).

Meanwhile, Mr Weston’s son Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor), long the source of gossip and mystery, arrives in the county with scandalous tales of an affair concerning Jane Fairfax (Polly Walker), whom Emma considers a rather dull diversion. Emma believes she might be in love with Frank and then, when the feeling passes, considers him a match for poor, heartbroken Harriet; but she’s wrong about most of her headstrong assumptions, most of all the target of Knightley’s affections – and who might love him in return.

It’s frankly odious to keep harking back to the Beeb’s Pride and Prejudice whenever I get anywhere near a review of Austen (or even Austen-ish) material, but the fact is that it instantly became – and remains – the template for how to film the novels properly: long enough to do the plotlines justice and allow each character to take root and grow; expensive enough to convince in costumes and locations, both exterior and interior; and (most importantly) having an innate understanding of Austen, who enjoyed making fun of people’s foibles and weaknesses and their magnification in gossipy, localised ‘society’.

Beginning with a globe showing only Great Britain, it seems at first as though Douglas McGrath’s Emma is going to take all this on board; regrettably, although plenty of money has clearly been spent on the visuals – the countryside looks lovely, and there’s never cause to doubt the period details – it is only in this respect that the film truly succeeds.

The cast are game but Emma doesn’t make it easy for us to warm to their characters. In the title role, Paltrow copies Austen to the letter, in the sense that she portrays a thoughtless and rather spoilt woman whom no one will much like. Emma’s disregard for Harriet’s feelings is appalling, and although there is good in her, it takes a long while for us to see it, giving us time to grow tired of Paltrow’s dainty frame and impressive but over-pronounced accent. Jeremy Northam, meanwhile, lacks authority – and activity – as Knightley and the pair fail to generate much chemistry.

Collette, fresh from Muriel’s Wedding, seems to have been asked to do more of the same, only with an English accent; she’s very good at it, too, but Harriet’s clumsiness doesn’t sit well opposite Paltrow’s neat and petite manners. Elsewhere, McGregor is too glib and self-satisfied as Frank and is never a credible match for Emma; however, there’s much pleasure to be had in charming semi-comic performances from Cumming, Stevenson and especially Thompson as Miss Bates, cut to the quick by Emma’s most scathing put-down.

The inconsistency in performances is matched by the unsure tone of the narrative. McGrath seems unable to decide whether he’s filming an earnest period feature or a modern romantic comedy, and the thrust of the storytelling gets lost somewhere in the middle. The Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax subplot is teased for far too long, yet sidelined as soon as it arrives (except in how it affects Emma); and I still don’t know whether we’re meant to find Harriet ridiculous or pathetic in the true sense of the word.

The inevitable ball is staged well, but – sorry – doesn’t crackle with tension like those in the TV P&P, and more often than not the mood is dictated more by the tenor of the score (plinky when being comic, swelling and lush when romantic) than the actions or speeches of the actors. As a result, despite a few neat visual shortcuts, the film sometimes feels stodgy when it should bounce along on the springs of Austen’s wit. It doesn’t help that the film shoehorns in its own un-Austenian jokes – ‘Try not to kill my dogs’ is a passable punchline on its own merits, but it couldn’t sound more out of place in the world of Emma had Mr Spock beamed down to deliver it.

It’s perhaps unfair to Emma that I’ve re-watched it so close to seeing the perky, poppy Clueless for the first time. The story itself remains a thing of beauty and visually, so is this movie. On the other hand, I’ve never rated it as highly as other adaptations, for example Ang Lee’s stately Sense and Sensibility, because I’d frankly rather spend time with the Dashwoods (or the Bennets) than with Paltrow’s surly Miss Woodhouse. Not exactly badly done, Emma, but by no means a bullseye either.

Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Lonely ginger English orphan Benjamin Sniddlegrass wins a place at the Fairport Academy for wits and wittettes, presided over by visiting headmaster, eccentric Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog. Sniddlegrass gets to indulge his love of skiffle and also finds love with older student Scarlett McKenna, but visions of mortal enemy Lord Emmerich begin to invade his dreams. What do they mean? And why are there penguins in them?

It may well be the strangest raison d’être of a film in movie history. Film critic Mark Kermode, in reviewing Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, derides Harry Potter wannabes and says – in an entirely throwaway remark – that you might as well make a film called ‘Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins’. On the other side of the world, Australian Jeremy Dylan takes him at his word and with a gang of friends, and almost no money whatsoever, turns a sarky joke into a feature film packed with wittertaining references.

As narrator Stephen Fry briefly explains in an uncannily familiar set-up, Benjamin Sniddlegrass (Andrew Griscti) lives in the bathroom of his unpleasant Aunt David Morrissey. One day, he’s magically transported from Cockfosters to Sydney, where the mysterious Pentangle (Alec Doomadgee) explains that he’s a ‘wit’, a wizard selected for training at the famous Fairport Academy. Benjamin is an unwitting (sorry) celebrity at the school, since his parents were killed battling the evil Lord Emmerich, also presumed dead; but he has more immediate matters to address, such as a burgeoning friendship with bright-eyed third-year student Scarlett McKenna (Catherine Davies) and a chance to watch long-dead music heroes, specifically skiffle king Johnny Leroy (Jon Sewell).

However, events take a surreal turn when Emmerich – and penguins – start appearing in Benjamin’s dreams, forcing the student to seek assistance and a less-than-magical ‘potion’ to keep him awake, provided by the school’s exchange headmaster, Werner Herzog (Dorian Newstead).

It would be condescending to judge BSATCOP by different standards to any other film, and in a totally objective light you’d have to say it’s not brilliant. The reason for this is almost entirely attributable to the fact that it’s as cheap as – let’s follow the form – nuts, and looks it. I can’t be bothered to count exactly how much of the movie is actual footage and how much is titles or scenes played through a different filter, but to make the film last more than an hour Dylan replays scenes until they become over-familiar, interspersed with what amount to Powerpoint graphics (I think we get four sets of titles, in all).

The film displays all the hallmarks of student film-making, using real locations and making do with what’s available: entirely understandable, but (for example) was there really no better alternative to a grungy student bar for Emmerich’s lair? The plot too is at the mercy of the ultra-low budget (£6,000, roughly), which allows only the most cursory parody of the Harry Potter movies – we’re talking very low-grade magic – and no set-pieces to speak of (unless you count rescue from a pool table as an action set-piece).

That said, Benjamin Sniddlegrass does – just about – manage to tell a story, and has fun while it’s doing it. The acting from the leads is pretty decent for a student film, and there’s something approaching chemistry between Griscti and Davies, bolstered by a saucy streak that has nothing to do with J.K. Rowling’s work (the banter while playing pool is pure smut, in a good way); the Maurice Binder-like titles are also surprisingly effective, accompanying the bombastic theme song (the music in general is good, depending on your tolerance for skiffle). Dylan makes a virtue of the film’s cheapness, and while it never reaches great heights of excitement, I didn’t have time to get bored either. I enjoyed individual jokes, like the Wicker Basket of Times Past, very much.

The question I haven’t answered so far is ‘Do you have to know the context of the film’s genesis to appreciate it?’, and my answer is ‘I don’t know’. I am a regular podcaster of Drs Mayo and Kermode film review show on Radio 5 Live, and as such did enjoy the little references to the show’s in-jokes and memes – even if no-one directly says hello to Jason Isaacs. However, apart from knowing where the title came from and who Werner Herzog is, I don’t think it does matter much if you’re aware of the film’s background. Anyway, let’s face it, if you’re not a fan of the good doctor (and the fake one), your chances of stumbling on this movie by mistake are pretty slim.

Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins is a brave, not to say lunatic, attempt at making a mountain out of a molehill; and while it would have obviously been a better film with another 20,000 or so dollars thrown at it, it contains enough good material to be perfectly watchable. Personally, I think the film shows some talent – Peter Jackson started off mega-cheap, and look where he ended up.

I’d quite like to see the proposed follow-up, Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Death of Narrative Cinema, and would be perfectly happy – if you’re reading, Jeremy, and the title wasn’t just a joke – to support it getting made. If the director is reading*, he shouldn’t be despondent about the score: it’s an honest rating and puts BSATCOP way ahead of a lot of much more expensive movies. Minute for minute, and balancing assets against flaws, I genuinely thought the film was on a par with Ang Lee’s The Hulk, Eagle Eye and The Da Vinci Code. And it’s a lot better than that particular favourite of Dr K’s, Angels and Demons.

NOTES: When this review was posted on my original website, Mr Jeremy Dylan kindly sent me an email in which he was very honest about the qualities of his debut feature. This makes him unique amongst directors whose films I’ve reviewed – yeah, Scorsese, where’s your email? – and makes me like him all the more. Go to http://mrjeremydylan.com/ to find out what he’s currently up to Down Under.

Grosse Pointe Blank

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: Vaguely troubled by his anti-social job – killing people for money – Martin Blank is persuaded to attend his 10-year school reunion in Grosse Pointe, Detroit. The trip allows Martin to catch up with Debi, his jilted love of a decade ago, but Martin’s professional rivals are determined to make the journey a busman’s holiday – possibly a very brief one.

Hitman Martin Blank (John Cusack) just isn’t enjoying his work like he used to, and it’s making him sloppy. His feisty assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack) nags at him to take a break by attending his school reunion, while terrified shrink Dr Oatman (the wonderful Alan Arkin) will tell Martin anything he wants to hear just to get rid of him. When a hit happens to come up in Martin’s hometown of Grosse Pointe he reluctantly takes the job, knowing that he’ll face a heap of questions; not least from Debi (Minnie Driver), the girl he deserted before Senior Prom back in ‘86.

Martin feels the force of DJ Debi’s pent-up anger on live radio, but that’s the least of his problems: unhappy with Martin’s rejection of joining a Union of hitmen – and being undercut – The Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) is lingering on the scene, having tipped off NSA Agents Lardner* and McCullers (Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman) to ‘whack’ him. There’s also a hitman called Felix out to gain retribution for an unfortunate canine catastrophe from Blank’s past. With his life already this complicated, no wonder Martin’s confused by the mundane lives of his classmates, his befuddled mother, and the fact that his family home has become a convenience store.

If the thought of a movie about professional killers being broadly played as a comedy – a romantic comedy at that – troubles you, then a bit of context might come in handy. In the wake of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and especially Pulp Fiction (note the cardboard cut-outs in the Ultimart), it was perfectly acceptable to kill people in cold blood so long as the film acknowledged its ironic status: “Hey, I’m only a movie, there are no ‘real people’ dying here”. In this light, it’s easy to understand Grosse Pointe Blank as a smart mixture of Pulp Fiction and something like Grease, John Cusack standing in as a charismatic if melancholic John Travolta substitute. Neurotic, too: Cusack has imported some of David Shayne’s troubles from Bullets over Broadway.

Wherever it comes from, the strange brew – for the most part – works very well indeed. Thanks to a combination of a consistently clever script and a host of nimble performances (from those I’ve mentioned and others I’ve not, such as Jeremy Piven as Paul, Martin’s oafish Estate agent friend), Grosse Pointe Blank entertains throughout. Blank is marvellously awkward at trying to be normal, and normal people are awkward around him – they can’t process his honest answers, he can’t process their uncomprehending responses or the unrelenting awfulness of the reunion.

Furthermore, the appurtenances to Martin’s career are all great fun: Marcella, Aykroyd’s Grocer, the exploding Ultimart and the pissed-off (ex-)employee, the decently-staged fight with Felix. Together with the touching scene featuring Barbara Harris as Martin’s mother and the less touching one at his father’s grave, we get interesting glimpses of Martin’s past and what might have turned him into a killer.

That said, the movie can’t have it all ways. We build up a picture of an eighteen-year-old who, with a life of normality yawning ahead of him, lost the plot, took the amoral way out and found it suited him perfectly. However, while we’re admiring the cool of this emotionless marksman, the film suddenly throws the switch on Blank by presenting him with a baby that turns him, for want of a better word, gaga.

I didn’t quite believe in Martin as the ex-psycho, suddenly turned potential family man, and the film never quite recovers its poise from this moment, despite an excitingly destructive climax. Nor for that matter did I entirely believe that Debi – for all Driver’s good work – was ever a real person, rather than a collection of quippy, off-beat lines. I didn’t feel that either Lardner or McCullers deserved their demises, even if they are little more than low-grade facsimiles of Pulp Fiction’s Vincent and Jules. And couldn’t Aykroyd’s Grocer have made it out alive?

Then again, this being ironic cinema, we know perfectly well these actors are only playing – Azaria and Aykroyd have been in loads of stuff since, and Freeman has…er…well, IMDB says he was in The Dark Knight, so he must be doing fine. In the final analysis, Grosse Pointe Blank is probably too laid-back, too content with its own hipness, to be a contender for greatness. Still, it’s witty in ways most action comedies can only dream of and mostly enormous fun. If nothing else, if you’re of a certain age, you’ll love the soundtrack.

NOTES: 1 “Steven Lardner, aka ‘Steve’”, as Marcella says. My favourite line, alongside the sing-song way Debi says ‘You’re a f**king psycho’.

2 Even Blank’s name is a movie pun as much as it’s a character clue, though I’ve not see Point Blank to let you know whether it’s a good one.

Green Zone

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Hunting down Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, Warrant Officer Roy Miller keeps coming up empty – and he wants to know why. His investigations send him on a direct collision course with the Pentagon, who refuse to give up their source, so he goes on a hunt of his own with the reluctant assistance of local ex-soldier Freddy. Unsurprisingly, Miller suddenly finds he has enemies on all fronts.

It’s April 2003, and the US Army are busy searching for Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction among the ruins of the bombed-out cities of Iraq. Leading the search is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), who is frustrated when his ‘intel’ repeatedly turns out to be useless. Miller’s inconvenient questions to his superiors bring him to the attention of CIA agent Marty Brown (Brendan Gleeson), who is trying to keep the country functioning; but he’s struggling against local Pentagon official Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), busy installing a puppet leader and feeding Amy Ryan’s reporter Lawrie with stories from an elusive source called ‘Magellan’.

Marty tells Miller to keep his eyes peeled, so when Iran War veteran Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) tells him about a meeting of Ba’ath Party Generals, including chemicals expert Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor), aka the ‘Jack of Clubs’, he’s more than interested. A firefight ensues during which Al-Rawi escapes, but Miller finds a notebook which may hold the key to his whereabouts. Miller is desperate to catch up with Al-Rawi, but the Pentagon are equally keen to keep Miller off the track; so when the Warrant Officer finds further clues in Abu Ghraib prison, he becomes involved in a violent race with moustachioed Special Forces hardman Briggs (Jason Isaacs), who doesn’t let a thing like being on the same side as Miller get in his way.

Whether or not you have any interest in the politics of the piece, there’s plenty to applaud in Green Zone. The re-enactment of the chaos and carnage of war is brilliantly filmed, once you get used to Greengrass’s nervous, restless camera (and you do); and the film is tightly paced, measuring out regular action scenes amongst the slower sections, which develop the plot and highlight the absurdity of the Americans luxuriating in the Imperial Palace while the civilians they’ve ‘liberated’ go without electricity or water.

The film is packaged in the style of previous Greengrass/Damon projects The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, which means Green Zone is always exciting and kinetic. What’s more, while you can agree or disagree with the politics of the piece, as someone who remembers watching Colin Powell trying to bamboozle the UN with crude computer mock-ups of lorries laden with chemical weapons, the subject matter remains relevant and – bravely for mainstream American cinema – points fingers at those in charge. You may believe the invasion of Iraq was justified in any event, but the uncomfortable fact is that the Allies went in to find WMDs – and found none.

The above praise makes it all the more unfortunate that one key aspect of Green Zone is a real let-down. Though the actors are all game, Brian Helgeland’s script fails to muster a single credible character with a humanising personality, quirk or foible. Everyone is a simplistic representative of a political position: Miller the doubting Thomas, Clark the slimy, scheming face of Washington, Briggs the unquestioning assassin, Marty the overlooked voice of reason, Freddy the noble Iraqi, Lawrie the gullible journalist. The film may have been based on a real-life account of the war, but it seems as though anything that could identify the characters as actual protagonists has been sanded away, leaving the talented cast to play a bunch of largely anonymous ciphers.

Consequently, when the film ramps up the thrills in full-blown Bourne fashion, with helicopters and vehicles and on-foot pursuits, the action partly relayed via state-of-the-art technology, it’s a strangely uninvolving experience. You don’t want Damon to get killed because he’s cuddly Matt Damon, but otherwise his Roy Miller doesn’t have enough about him to feel worth caring about. And while you’re clearly meant to feel for Freddy, he’s far too obvious a symbol of Iraqi self-determination to empathise with as a genuine person – and as others have noted, how the hell does he catch up with the action come the climax?

So what does that leave us with? It leaves us with a paradox, in that the film finds truth amongst lies yet doesn’t ring true itself. Green Zone plays like a cracking action film but fails to hammer home its point, which must have been Greengrass’s chief priority. I couldn’t help but compare the film unfavourably to David O. Russell’s Three Kings, which was seldom believable and occasionally quite unpleasant to watch, but took a much more jaded, scabrous view of the first Iraq War and was more memorable and effective as a result. Alternatively, I think of Black Hawk Down, which dealt with another screwed-up mission and brought the viewer into the middle of the fray, concentrating on the humans stuck in hell rather than the political decisions that caused them to be there.

I don’t want to sound too down on Green Zone, because I enjoyed it. I applaud the idea of exposing the (probably) illegal ‘War’ in Iraq for the sham it was, and I understand that packaging the Allies’ shoddy dealings in an action-cum-thriller wrapper secured the film the largest possible audience (though not, ultimately, very good box office). However, action films need a hero, and Damon’s upright but charmless Roy Miller just isn’t that man. Put simply, it’s difficult to warm to any film that suggests that the Ba’ath Party, given the chance, might save the day.