Brideshead Revisited

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Callow and (relatively) impoverished student Charles Ryder travels up to Oxford and befriends young bohemian Sebastian Flyte. However, as Charles becomes acquainted with the Flytes and their ancestral pile, Brideshead, he finds himself falling for both the house and Sebastian’s spirited sister Julia, causing conflict with the family, their faith and most of all their imposing matriarch, Lady Marchmain.

Aspiring artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) needs a friend at Oxford, since his schooling leaves a lot to be desired and his widowed father (Patrick Malahide) isn’t remotely interested in the boy’s progress. Luckily, Charles encounters bon viveur Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and despite the sarcastic comments of Sebastian’s friends – and the fact that the flamboyant aristocrat is unhealthily attached to his teddy bear, Aloysius – the pair quickly become good friends. In fact, Sebastian is besotted with Charles and takes him to Brideshead, a sprawling house which Charles comes to consider a second home as he becomes more acquainted with the Flytes: strait-laced elder brother Bridey (Ed Stoppard), charming sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), younger sister Cordelia (Felicity Jones) and devout Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), who frets over Sebastian’s lifestyle and dismisses Charles as a ‘painter from Paddington’.

As Charles travels with Sebastian and Julia to visit Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), living in Venice with his mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi), he discovers that his passions truly lie with Julia rather than Sebastian; though she rejects him, their passion eventually finds a physical expression, causing havoc with both Julia’s marriage to opportunist American Rex (Jonathan Cake) and her faith.

There is, of course, no law governing literary adaptations, so there is theoretically no reason on Earth why Julian Jarrold and BBC Films (amongst others) shouldn’t have a go at filming Evelyn Waugh’s celebrated novel. On the other hand, much like Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, this film has to live in the shadow of a ‘definitive’ TV adaptation, in this case an 11-part production made back in 1981.

I’ve not seen ITV’s Brideshead Revisited, so (unlike P&P) I can’t give a blow-by-blow account of the differences, but it is clear that condensing the plot into two-and-a-bit hours leaves significant gaps in the story: most notably in respect of minor characters (Charles’ wife Celia (Anna Madeley) falls out of the picture very easily), but also in respect of Sebastian, who is largely forgotten once consigned to Morocco.

Although the film is infused with Lady Marchmain’s fervent Catholicism and the guilt it imbues in her children, Brideshead Revisited the movie is in essence a simple love story, the tale of a social climber who uses Sebastian’s forlorn affections to reach the woman he really loves, only to find that his actions destroy the possibility of that love enduring. And while the tale is handsomely told, at times the film feels more like a hurried sprint than a dignified walk through Brideshead’s grounds.

The result of the film’s haste is that Brideshead Revisited only scratches the surface of its characters, so the viewer’s empathy is limited: are these not poor little rich kids (and adults), swanning about in finery, with endless leisure time to fill between wine-quaffing, holidaying, and occasional fretting about what God thinks of them? I certainly didn’t feel particularly heartbroken about Julia and Charles’ relationship, nor did I worry overly about Sebastian or Lord Marchmain’s eternal souls; and in that sense the film doesn’t do its job.

Compensation comes in the shape of some arresting performances: Matthew Goode is quite,er, good in the lead role, while both Whishaw and Atwell acquit themselves adequately as youngsters whose spirits are crushed under their mother’s disapproving gaze. That said, the real impact is made by the senior actors: Patrick Malahide is gloriously vile as the sneering Mr Ryder and Gambon customarily effective in a cameo role; more than these, Emma Thompson’s icy performance dominates the picture, much as Lady Marchmain dominates her children. While Thompson is on screen, the film packs a real punch, and although her influence lingers throughout, it is a shame that she is lost to the story from around the half way mark. I should also mention the contribution made by Yorkshire’s impressive Castle Howard (reprising its role of Brideshead from the television series), a fabulous setting for the action; Venice, as always, looks good on film too.

I have tried to avoid describing Brideshead Revisited along class lines, since even with the Flytes’ evident entitlement there is no reason why they could not have engaging lives, or that the satire implicit in Waugh’s novel could not sear off the screen. Nevertheless, there is something lacking in this adaptation which means that, despite good acting, a decent score and impeccable production values, this film feels – for the most part – sterile and underwhelming. Those who have seen the TV adaptation may say what’s lacking is the nine hours of material lost to make a single movie, I couldn’t tell you; what I can say is that while the film looks every bit as sumptuous as you would expect from a British-made period drama, it lacks the substance and weight to do justice to the source material.

Daredevil

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Fuelled by a burning sense of justice from his childhood, blind lawyer Matt Murdock spends his spare time dishing out just desserts to Hell’s Kitchen’s criminals. His world is turned upside-down by the arrival of sparky heiress Elektra Nachios, but the interference of the ruthless Kingpin in her family affairs causes both of them a world of pain.

There’s a quaint little quiz show on British television called Pointless, in which people attempt to answer simple questions with the most obscure answers, in an attempt to achieve the lowest possible score. For example, were the category ‘Stan Lee comic characters’, answers such as Spider-Man or The Hulk would be bad, because everyone has heard of them. However, in the UK at least, Daredevil would most likely be a very good answer, since he remains pretty much unknown despite this 2003 movie treatment. That’s not, however, entirely the film’s fault.

As a youngster, Matt Murdock (Scott Terra) worships his boxer father, until the moment the boy witnesses him working as a heavy for crime boss Fallon. Fleeing from the scene, Matt has an unfortunate collision with toxic chemicals which robs him of his sight, though his remaining senses are heightened, proving a useful compensation. Matt’s father is killed for refusing to throw a fight, which fuels the adult Matt’s (now Ben Affleck) passion for justice some years later, where he athletically rights the wrongs by night that slip out of his reach in his day job as a pro bono lawyer.

While being berated for his lack of ambition (and money) by partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau), Matt catches the scent of a woman, Elektra Nachios (Jennifer Garner); and although their initial meeting is more martial arts-based than many first encounters, the pair eventually hit it off romantically too. Meanwhile, Elektra’s father Nikolas incurs the wrath of his boss Wilson Fisk (Michael Clarke Duncan), and despite Elektra and Daredevil’s best efforts they cannot save him from the deadly accuracy of Colin Farrell’s Bullseye, who makes a vengeful Elektra believe that Daredevil was the assassin. Though they resolve their differences, the heroic pair will have to be fearless – and make sacrifices – to bring down Fisk, aka the evil ‘Kingpin’.

Although Daredevil the character is undoubtedly influenced by Batman, it would be misleading to associate the films too closely; after all, in 2003 the last moviegoers had seen of the Dark Knight was in the execrable Batman and Robin, Chris Nolan’s reboot still two years off. So Mark Steven Johnson’s film deserves more than a little credit for its camp-free approach to the tale, which interestingly begins in the middle, with Daredevil severely wounded.

It’s interesting too that our superhero is a man of limited powers, meaning that he (for example) can’t prevent the death of Mr Nachios; he’s also a bundle of uncertainties, despite his profound claim of being a ‘man without fear’: he takes pills, has a confessor (Derrick O’Connor’s helpful Father Everett), and generally wears the weight of the world on his shoulders. Murdock has a lithe, lively partner in Garner’s Elektra, an affable comic foil in Favreau, and a quirky enemy in Farrell’s paper clip-flinging bad guy, whose exaggerated comic-strip nature works well, especially during cinema’s first and only* recorded fight on the pipes of a pipe organ. Perhaps best of all, amid the otherwise merely loud soundtrack there’s the wonderful Evanescence track Bring Me To Life, which excuses a multitude of sins.

Which is just as well, since Daredevil has plenty of sins that need excusing. The biggest problems lie in Daredevil himself, because his blindness never feels much more than a gimmick. In fact, because Murdock’s other senses are so acute that they allow him to, er, see, more or less, it barely even qualifies as a disability. Furthermore, for all his moral qualms, fancy moves and nice burgundy outfit, Daredevil is not so interesting. Johnson seems to admit as much halfway through, when the movie starts lingering jealously over Elektra’s leather outfits and athletic workouts instead: no bad thing for the viewer, but something of an indictment of the titular hero and Affleck’s (sadly) typical charmless performance.

It’s not that Affleck doesn’t do the action bits well, or even the tortured soul act, but that sneer on his face robs Matt Murdock of sincerity, vulnerability and warmth. That said, he’s not alone: Michael Clarke Duncan is, of course, a physically imposing figure, but his Kingpin is completely generic – the cigar, the laugh – and his battle with Daredevil provides half a climax at best; and quite what Joe Pantoliano is doing in the movie is anyone’s guess (actually, it’s not – his character, floppy-hatted reporter Ben Urich, is a plot device and nothing more).

I should also say that while Garner looks nice, she doesn’t exactly possess great range; her chemistry with her future [ex-]husband is all but spoilt by their risible impromptu fight, which recalls the illogic of The Avengers (which can never be a good thing), and the non-sexual sex scene becomes laughable as it resorts to the desperate cliché of the roaring log fire (which must have been a joke – tell us it was a joke, Mark!). Finally, there are some visual niggles: a lot of the fightwork looks fake, as does the improbable building-leaping where, just like Spider-Man, computer models fail to realistically replicate the actors’ movements.

Since Daredevil preceded Batman Begins, comparisons with Nolan’s instant classic are almost entirely unfair. On the other hand, if this film were more substantial or subversive it might be remembered alongside Nolan’s vision, rather than being totally eclipsed by it. Heck, Elektra got her own film in 2005, while Daredevil himself was left in the shadows/on the cutting room floor. A competent comic strip adaptation, Daredevil has a few things going for it; but in many respects it doesn’t help its own cause, and later, better films have made this one feel rather – what’s the word? –pointless.

NOTES: Prove me wrong, if you can.

The Time Machine

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Brilliant but scatter-brained physics lecturer Alexander Hartdegen is distraught at the murder of his fiancée and constructs a machine that will take him back in time to prevent Emma’s death. The consequences of his invention go far beyond his imagination as he is flung into the far future and the middle of a war between two alien (to Alex) races: one peaceful, the other brutal and cannabilistic.

I have not read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine so would not be able to tell you which plot points, characters and so on stem from his work and which are the product of Hollywood screenwriters; however, I can state with some confidence that were the author transported from 19th Century England to the present day and sat in front of Simon Wells’ movie, he would conclude that his great-grandson had made a complete rickets of his story.

Although we are not given an exact date, The Time Machine takes us to early 20th Century New York, where Professor Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) ignores the pleas of his friend David Philby (Mark Addy) to slow down and enjoy life as he skitters through traffic (including early automobiles) to meet his beloved Emma (Sienna Guillory). No sooner has Alex proposed, however, when a man emerges from the bushes to hold them up; in the struggle that follows, the robber fatally shoots Emma.

Jump forward – via caption, at this point – four years and the professor’s a scruffy, deranged scribbler, the despair of David and his motherly housekeeper (Phyllida Law). They believe his work bears all the traces of madness, but behind a curtain is hidden Alex’s great secret: a shiny chrome Time Machine that takes him back to Emma and averts her death, though the respite is temporary. Distraught, Alex jumps into the future, initially finding a beautifully clean New York populated by helpful holograms such as moving library Vox (Orlando Jones), but a short further hop forward reveals the disastrous results of messing about on the moon.

Alex scrambles back into his time machine and, unconscious, races 800,000 years into the future before he is brought round by helpful Eloi teacher Mara (Samantha Mumba), with whom Alex bonds. The peaceful, Polynesian lifestyle of the Eloi on shell-like structures halfway up the cliffs is threatened whenever they tread on land, as a race of violent subterranean creatures called Morlocks hunt them for food under the leadership of Uber-Morlock Jeremy Irons. When Mara is captured, Alex calls upon the miraculously still-working Vox to guide him to the Morlocks’ lair.

Movies featuring time travel are always easy targets for pedants, and to its credit The Time Machine neatly sidesteps most issues of paradox, even with the unintentionally amusing double dispatch of Emma; because Emma’s death instigated the building of the time machine in the first place (ie. if she had not died there would have been no reason to build it), because the machine exists, Emma must be dead. It’s a logic that you could argue with (perhaps he built it later as a hobby?) but does make some sense within the film.

What we don’t get is any explanation whatsoever of how the machine is built, or how it works: it just does, and we have to go along with that. Fine, but it’s difficult to believe in Alex’s amazement at Vox’s technology when he’s built a ruddy time machine!! What we get instead are glib attempts at humour such as Alex receiving correspondence from Einstein and a woman in 2030 looking at the machine and saying ‘Bet that makes a hell of a cappuccino!’ I’m not asking for a load of pseudo-science, but a scene showing some experimentation would have laid the ground more effectively.

There are, however, two real problems with the film: firstly, the story is a mess, completely failing to balance the urban science fiction of the first half with the war between divergent human races in the second. What has been a quietly diverting tale suddenly turns into a third-rate Indiana Jones adventure, and although the Morlock race is effectively brought to the screen they are a confusing bunch of people, capable of throwing darts and making great leaps but easily outpaced by a puny scientist.

Also, while the majority of the Morlocks appear to be incapable of speech, down in the depths the Uber-Morlock is a terrifically-well spoken chap. In its conclusion the film is at its weakest, resorting to a good old-fashioned punch-up to sort the men from the mutants and having the time machine itself act like a nuclear bomb when required – handy that! Such laziness aggravates minor concerns, such as whether fragments of the half-destroyed moon would still be orbiting the earth after 800,000 years or the continued operation of Vox. In addition, neither of the love stories are given time or space to become convincing, Emma barely introduced before she is taken (both times), and Mara’s attraction to Alex reduced to hand-holding.

And this brings me to the second problem. Although the script never helps the actors, in places The Time Machine is horribly miscast; Pearce is perfectly adequate in the dual scientist/action man role, but around him lie a couple of really strange choices. Mark Addy, who rose to fame as a chunky Northerner in The Full Monty, looks and sounds embarrassed to be playing an American scientist; and whilst Samantha Mumba might look the part, her chemistry with Pearce is non-existent. Her talents, such as they are, begin and end with her singing: of course, she would be a complete unknown to anyone from outside the UK and Ireland, and it’s odd that she should be chosen over a more established box-office draw.

As Emma, Sienna Guillory is pretty in a Julia Roberts-lite kind of way, but also fails to generate much heat; in her case, I would say that she is never given the opportunity. And I can barely imagine what Irons must have thought of his role as the horribly-named Uber-Morlock, but his performance in frightful white make-up and wig is his traditional upper-crust English baddie, the voice completely at odds with his appearance. It’s tosh, but Irons’ pounds- per-second of screen-time ratio must be among the best in movie history.

As Wells already had a career in animated film (directing, amongst other films, The Prince of Egypt), it was not complete lunacy to hand him a project with which he could claim unique ties; and The Time Machine always looks like a decent film, several time-lapsed sequences showing the retreat or accelerated progress of time impressing greatly. Unfortunately, when the landscape outside the machine stops evolving and the story has to wind itself up again, the film falls apart. All in all, a sad failure, and no doubt Wells would love to go back and have another go, if only he had the equipment at his disposal.

The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas

WFTB Score: 5/20

The plot: Construction worker and caveman Fred Flintstone feels something is missing in his otherwise perfect prehistoric life. It’s not a friend, as he has faithful dope Barney as a constant companion; it’s not advice, as Fred has a sniffy alien called the Great Gazoo to help him; but it may be the love of a good woman. Can Gazoo, on a mission to observe human mating habits, steer both Fred and Barney into the arms of beautiful women who will put up with the boys’ primitive ways?

While it gets occasional runs on the BBC, the cartoon series of The Flintstones never really made much of an impact here (to anyone born after 1970, anyway), Britain unaccustomed to the Honeymooners sitcom on which it was based. Nonetheless, the prehistoric families living quasi-1950s lives with the mod-cons replaced by domestic dinosaurs et al had enough worldwide recognition to make Brian Levant’s 1994 film The Flintstones a financial if not a critical success, with John Goodman and Rick Moranis taking on roles of Fred and Barney respectively, Elizabeth Perkins and Rosie O’Donnell playing their wives and featuring a cameo from Elizabeth Taylor as Fred’s snobbish mother-in-law, Pearl Slaghoople. Given the positive box office, it was little surprise that a second film emerged, again directed by Levant. And whilst it seems bizarre that Viva Rock Vegas is a prequel, taking place before either the Flintstones or Rubbles get together and featuring an entirely different cast to the first film, I suspect the reluctance of some or all of the original cast to return forced the studio’s hand.

Viva Rock Vegas begins with the Universal logo replaced by a ‘Univershell’ one (the first of hundreds of ghastly puns) before introducing us to the Great Gazoo (Alan Cumming), the hapless alien chucked off his spaceship to observe courtship and mating rituals. Gazoo was, from what I can gather, a character introduced late to the cartoon Flintstones who did nothing to stop its slide into cancellation, so why it was thought he would liven up the film is anyone’s guess; but I digress. Gazoo runs into a lovelorn Fred (Mark Addy) and Barney (Stephen Baldwin), and insults and nudges them into asking women out.

Meanwhile, Wilma Slaghoople (Kristen Johnston) leaves behind her bourgeois life and imminent betrothal to casino owner Chip Rockefeller (Thomas Gibson) to work in a burger bar with Betty O’Shale (Jane Krakowski), much to the disapproval of mother Pearl (Joan Collins), although her father Harvey Korman (the original Great Gazoo, fact fans) is too batty to care. As you might suppose, the quartet find themselves on a double date where Betty and Barney discover they have equally irritating laughs, leaving Fred to teach Wilma the joys of bowling (complete with twangy sound effects). Love blossoms but the interference of Pearl, the underhand tactics of Chip – in debt and desperate need of Slaghoople money – and the intervention of a famous singer called Mick Jagged (Cumming again) ensure that the road to happiness is a rocky one (sorry).

Although the first Flintstones was decidedly average, it could at least boast some stars in outrageous garb delivering naff lines, and the novelty of seeing primitive equipment brought to life. Viva Rock Vegas has none of these advantages. The script is just as poor as the first film, but the actors required to speak them seem to have been chosen on the basis that they were the first ones to pick up the phone that day.

Addy sort of looks alright but his impersonation of Fred is horrible (cf. The Time Machine), whilst Baldwin looks the part but has all the comic presence of smallpox – ditto with the square-jawed Thomas Gibson. Jane Krakowski is cute as Betty, but Johnston doesn’t seem comfortable with being the main focus of the film; as she is the main focus of the film, this is a problem.

There are also problems with the prop jokes: a dinosaur roller coaster at the carnival is fair enough, but why is there a woman with a camcorder? Even though it’s made out of rock, there’s no suggestion of how it works and misses the point of the premise entirely. The same goes for the casino, where a bird-operated remote control (fair enough…) switches off CCTV screens (Eh?!?).

And Dino, the pet Fred wins for Wilma at the carnival, is an annoying part-puppet-part-CGI creation designed to generate laughs from children, none of whom will have a clue what the Flintstones are about. Oh, and the Great Gazoo effects are poorly-executed too: Cumming, a talented comic actor, can’t make him any fun, even though he has a laugh with his very broad Mick Jagger impersonation.

‘Jagged’ and Ann-Margret both provide lively renditions of ‘Viva Las Vegas’ reworked to fit the film and these are entertaining, as are a few jokes that escape from the script almost by accident (the guy who constantly threatens to kill all the dinosaurs, for example); but the moments that shine mainly do so because of the acute dullness of every aspect of the rest of the film, a procession of weak performances holding feeble props, powering even feebler puns. I can only hope that talk of a live-action Jetsons movie, originally mooted in 2007 but last slated to appear in 2012, either never turns up, or has some far better ideas than Viva Rock Vegas when it does.

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.

End of Days

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: As the Millennium approaches, the Devil walks tall in New York, searching for a mate chosen by her birthmark twenty years before. As The Vatican quibble over whether to protect or kill Christine, it falls to unhappy security guard Jericho to look after the vulnerable young woman. Given that they are both mentally fragile, and their enemies are both numerous and powerful, how can they possibly prevent the next thousand years belonging to the forces of darkness?

I’m sure it’s no commentary on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting prowess that his most successful role (by far) has been that of an emotionless killing machine. Indeed, being a muscle-bound beefcake with a thick accent should be no barrier to displaying a full emotional range: just look at Stallone in Copland. Well, maybe that’s not such a great example, but in theory it can only be a good thing that the Governator gets to stretch his thespian talents.

End of Days begins in 1979 with the birth of a baby girl called Christine. She bears a birthmark which confirms her as the devil’s mate at the time of the new millennium and is anointed by satanic nurse Lily (Miriam Margolyes), who later becomes the girl’s stepmother. Meanwhile, signs of the devil’s arrival are noted at the Vatican and whilst the pope trusts in God and orders that no harm comes to Christine, others favour a more direct, deadly solution.

Fast forward twenty years and the devil duly arrives in New York, inhabiting the body of banker Gabriel Byrne in order to find and impregnate Christine, thereby securing a thousand years of Hell on Earth. Christine (Robin Tunney) has grown up suffering visions of Byrne’s rampant horniness, and as New Year’s Eve approaches her life gets a whole lot weirder.

And Mr S? Schwarzenegger is Jericho, a suicidal security guard not coping with the violent death of his wife and daughter to the extent that he’s about to shoot himself in the head when his buddy Bobby (Kevin Pollak) comes to collect him for a job protecting – as chance would have it – ‘The Man’ (Byrne). After a seemingly mad priest (Thomas Aquinas!) takes a pot shot at Byrne, Jericho’s mind is taken off his troubles by pursuing the cleric, and then following clues left at his squalid abode that lead Jericho to a meeting with Christine.

As the countdown to New Year continues, Jericho becomes Christine’s protector against those who want to procreate with her against her will and those who would kill her to prevent the apocalypse coming about. The hardest part is finding someone to trust, since Father Kovak (Rod Steiger) at the local church can only offer a modicum of protection and Jericho’s associates are acting very strangely. Jericho refuses a Faustian pact to have his old life back in exchange for divulging Christine’s hiding place, but defeating the Prince of Darkness involves more than a renewal of faith: it also requires some bloody big bullets.

There are a number of genuinely half-decent ideas in End of Days. The problem is, they’ve all had at least one previous outing on the silver screen already. Most obviously the film takes its near-contemporary The Devil’s Advocate as its horror-lite inspiration, though naturally there are liberal sprinklings from The Omen and The Exorcist, and Gabriel Byrne (very much Pacino-lite throughout) lends Steiger the famous quote from The Usual Suspects.

The whole thing comes across as a hotchpotch of better films’ ideas, with an orientation towards action rather than story as you might expect given Schwarzenegger’s comfort zone. Unfortunately, with all the guns, fighting, massive explosions and so on Tunney’s Christine is almost entirely lost; she’s pretty, but barely makes any impact amidst the ‘Arnie vs the Devil’ ballyhoo. Also, there’s considerable friction between the more ambitious plot elements and the dumb action stuff, resulting in a number of awkward scenes – not least the unintentionally hilarious sight of Arnie beating up Miriam Margolyes (or, hopefully, a short, stocky stuntman).

The other issue lies with Schwarzenegger. Whilst he’s running, punching and toting guns, his Jericho is a believable enough character (though as a concession to age, much of the stunt work is done by others). Unfortunately, he is tasked to pile various other emotions on top of his willingness to chase, shoot and fight, such as being depressed, suffering a crisis of faith or being amazed by supernatural events.

In particular, the scene where the Devil tempts Jericho with the illusion of having his wife and family back tests the acting chops of both. Byrne by no means distinguishes himself, but Schwarzenegger is all at sea. As usual, Arnie exhibits some muscle-bound charisma, but it’s telling that in the final analysis the film gives up any pretence of cleverness and pits him (plus the world’s biggest bullets) against a computer-generated devil-insect-monster from hell. This is, I realise, exactly the sort of climax action fans will be looking for, and why not; but I think the film’s religious ramblings and the sight of the last action hero moping will have turned many of them off long before the film switches fully into Predator mode.

In some respects it’s cruel to critique a film as knowingly dumb, as deliberately shallow and as blatantly derivative as End of Days: but these things have to be done. It’s too dark and patchy for an action film, not filled with remotely enough shock and gore to be a bona fide horror, and as a meditation on faith in the late 20th/early 21st Centuries – well, you’re having a laugh. Actually, that is the film’s saving grace: for whilst it is all kinds of rubbish, for better or worse you won’t be able to watch End of Days with a straight face.

Carry on Follow that Camel

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Shamed by accusations of cheating at cricket, Bertram ‘Bo’ West and his faithful butler Simpson head off to Africa to join the French Foreign legion. Although life is initially harsh, they soon get one over on their vainglorious leader, Sergeant Nocker, though the freedom this gives Bo gets them all into trouble. Worse, Bo’s beloved Jane follows him out to the desert to tell him that the whole thing is a ghastly mistake and gets herself lined up as wife no. 13 to a sabre-rattling Sheik.

I’m willing to bet Lombard Street to a China orange that if you took a survey of the general public nowadays four-fifths wouldn’t have a clue who Beau Geste or the French Foreign Legion were, and of the fifth that could tell you something more than half would mention Follow That Camel, the Carry On team’s take on P.C. Wren’s British hero (like Don’t Lose Your Head, the ‘Carry On’ bit was only added later after studio wrangling).

Bertram Oliphant ‘Bo’ West (Jim Dale) is our hero, who does the decent thing and heads off for the Legion when his ‘friend’ Humphrey, enamoured with Bo’s beau Jane (Angela Douglas), accuses Bo of tripping him up at the crease. With his faithful servant Simpson (Peter Butterworth) for company, West joins up and is introduced to the Fort’s hierarchy: effete Captain Lepice (Charles Hawtrey) and monocled German Commandant Maximilian Burger (Kenneth Williams). Bo, used to a nice breakfast and being dressed by others, struggles to adapt to the harshness of Legion life and incurs the wrath of waspish Colour Sergeant Nocker (Phil Silvers); until, that is, he discovers that Nocker is earning his stripes by telling tall tales of bravery when in fact he is cosily ensconced in the bar run by Zig-Zig (Joan Sims).

Armed with this information, Bo and Simpson’s lives suddenly become a lot easier; but during a night on the town both Nocker and West fall prey to the charms of exotic dancer Corktip (Anita Harris), secretly working in the employ of the Legion’s sworn enemy Sheik Abdul Abulbul (Bernard Bresslaw). Meanwhile, Jane has travelled to find Bo and is amazed to encounter Burger, her old fencing teacher from finishing school; he, however, is only a temporary diversion as her search for her wronged man leads her into the arms of the Sheikh. With the lady gone and West and Simpson held captive too, Nocker must raise the alarm and get a full-scale rescue underway. But how to convince Burger of the urgency of the situation when a disgruntled Zig-Zig has spilt the beans about the American’s medal-winning deceit?

Casting and writing are always the two crucial factors that make a Carry On film sink or swim, and in Follow That Camel casting is absolutely key. One instantly notices the lack of Sid James (through illness) and Barbara Windsor, naturally, but more important than this is the inclusion of Phil Silvers, presumably to help sell the film in the US. Perhaps because of the cosmopolitan nature of the Foreign Legion, Silvers’ brand of sarcasm fits surprisingly well into what you might imagine to be a quintessentially British picture, and he’s an imposing and entertaining presence even if clearly a little unfocused and a few years past the top of his game (he apparently read some of his lines from cue cards).

Williams is, as usual, excellent as the Commandant and he shares some good jokes with Hawtrey, even though the latter is – like Sims – underused. Bresslaw enjoys baring his teeth as the baddie and Dale is fine as the hero, Butterworth not too annoying as his retainer; and whilst Anita Harris makes for a rather scrawny femme fatale and Angela Douglas a bland damsel in distress, we can be thankful that this film predates the incorporation of her namesake Jack into the Carry On company.

The script, meanwhile, is a real curate’s egg. Talbot Rothwell always seems comfortable when writing about military life so it’s little surprise that the best bits of Follow That Camel deal with discipline and the fact that the troops’ ‘superiors’ are really nothing of the sort. There’s also the usual quota of nudging innuendo and general tomfoolery – Humphrey, ashamed of himself, both shoots and hangs himself (and lives to tell the tale!) – but on occasion the film’s cheerful sexism (the harem of busty lovelies is present and correct) strays too far.

No doubt the dimming of lights and casual refrain of ‘Travelling alone, miss?’ from a succession of men towards Jane was a hoot in the 60s, but now those scenes feel vaguely sinister; there are also some gags that must have raised eyebrows at the censor’s office, such as the name of the distant outpost Fort Zuassantneuf (a pun on the original Zinderneuf) and the shadows cast from the Sheik’s tent. Furthermore, although the film keeps its end up for a good hour, once the Legion troops into the desert it flags considerably, with only a sandcastle competition and a decent mirage joke to enjoy; the finale at Zuassantneuf shows a modicum of invention, but it’s little more than a dry run for the more polished climax to Khyber that followed the next year.

[Carry On] Follow That Camel isn’t the greatest of the gang’s parodies by a long stretch, but it looks the part (a major feat considering it was filmed on a Sussex beach) and there’s enough in it to make it feel relatively fresh, quite apart from Silvers’ unique turn. It contains nothing particularly classic in terms of comedy, but neither does it contain anything so bad that you’d escape to the Legion to forget.