Tag Archives: 10/20

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: A haughty prince, cursed with a beastly form and his servants transformed into household objects, gets one last chance at salvation when headstrong beauty Belle sacrifices her freedom to free her father Maurice. The Beast must earn Belle’s love to be released from the curse, but he’s a quick-tempered creature and the path to true love is very far from smooth.

Okay. I’ve got a lot to say, and you know what happens, so let’s dispense with the preamble and get stuck in, shall we?

Alright, quick recap: The beast is cursed because he can’t see beyond outward beauty, the enchantress gives him a symbolic rose, when the last petal falls he’s doomed to his beastly appearance (and his servants will be things) forever, if he can earn the love of another the curse will be broken, Maurice stumbles into the castle, Belle comes to find him and takes her father’s place, she gets to know the castle’s odd occupants but wants nothing to do with the Beast, and in the background the amorous Gaston is plotting to make Belle his wife by any means necessary.

You’ll gather from this that Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is telling pretty much the same tale as Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale’s animated version from 1991; and indeed, most of the story beats in both films are identical: Belle’s entrance, Gaston’s lodge, the encounter with the wolves, the warming of the relationship, the beautiful ballroom dance, and so on.

These moments are brought to the screen with spectacle and lavish detail; but how, the filmmakers must have thought, can we avoid remaking the impeccable original scene-for-scene? Their answer is to flesh out the backstory, swinging the tone firmly towards seriousness and melancholy, which to my mind is a fundamental miscalculation. Yes, events are portrayed with realism, but it’s at the expense of muting the comedy, drama and passions that were all abundant in the original.

The screenwriters and their 21st century sensibilities clearly felt icky about Belle – a strong, independent young woman (here more mistrusted proto-feminist than happy but yearning) – falling in love with her physically domineering and bad-tempered male captor. She can’t be happy with the Beast while she’s not free, a fairly direct reference to the idea that cartoon Belle was a victim of Stockholm Syndrome*.

And, of course, there have to be reasons for Belle and the Beast to come together. He’s well-read – she loves to read too! His mother died when he was a child – Belle’s mother died when she was even younger. These fully-detailed connections expand the movie’s running time to over two hours, a whopping 50% more than the animation, and to little benefit as far as I can see.

Trying to reason or justify why anyone falls in love is an immensely tricky business, yet I had no problem at all with the development of Belle and the Beast’s relationship in the 1991 film and didn’t require them to share common experiences to validate their emotions. Cartoon Belle was no less complete for failing to proactively kick against the pricks; cartoon Beast was no less pitiable – and was actually a whole lot scarier – without a sick mother and horrid father to explain him.

Anyway. The pitch ‘Beauty and The Beast – now with added plague!’ isn’t very appealing but sums up the tenor of the film perfectly. It looks gorgeous and feels incredibly worthy, but it’s not very much fun. Look at the first five minutes of the cartoon (after the wonderfully efficient prologue, that is): there are more jokes and laughs in the Belle sequence than in the whole of the live-action movie, and no amount of arch quipping from Lefou can compensate for the missing amusement of his cartoon counterpart. Maurice’s charming eccentricity is transmuted to a doleful, boring sadness, and ‘real’ Philippe gets no laughs at all.

There’s a greater crime too. The original film contained one of the great cinematic double acts in Cogsworth and Lumiere, the former’s stuffiness contrasting with the latter’s gung-ho attitude. They were lively, spirited, cute. For the update, Cogsworth is lumbering, immobile and virtually expressionless, and accordingly has much less of a role to play – Ian McKellen is just not right for the part and I dislike the impractical character model.

While Lumiere is better served – he can at least dance about, and Ewan McGregor sings Be Our Guest very nicely – it’s often difficult to see his face, and his accent is all over the place. In terms of the enchanted objects, it’s safe to say that I was not enchanted with them: despite the amazing effects work I missed having proper faces to look at, Chip being particularly unprepossessing.

And the humans/cursed ex-humans? Hmm. Emma Watson does a fair job playing Belle as a modern heroine, even if she rather underplays the role. The bad news is that her singing voice obviously had issues that required electronic tweaking, and those tweaks sound very odd, especially compared with her untreated co-stars. It’s unfortunate and distracting – where’s Marni Nixon when you need her? Dan Stevens is a cultured rather than angry Beast but not at all bad, Luke Evans is a tuneful if fairly unimposing Gaston, while Josh Gad is good fun, once you get used to the fact that his Lefou is no longer an unthinkingly loyal twerp but hopelessly in love (the ‘exclusively gay’ moment? Barely worth mentioning).

Staying with the positives, aside from the noteworthy performances and extraordinary visuals, the new songs are entirely passable; and in one specific instance the film’s melancholic bent works really well. When the servants succumb to their curse and their humanity (briefly) fades away, it’s a crushingly poignant moment. Regrettably, their transformations back to human form are not so well handled, a whirling camera fudging the process.

Overall, the best bits of this Beauty and The Beast are those that come directly from Linda Woolverton’s story and Menken and Ashman’s glorious original songs. I’ve already mentioned Be Our Guest, and both this and the title track are brought to the screen in great style. Yet – yet – I don’t know why anyone would swap the lovely animation of the ballroom scene for all the opulence here, or Angela Lansbury’s warm vocals for Emma Thompson’s. Similarly, I don’t know why you would choose to hear Watson singing instead of Paige O’Hara, Evans over Richard White or Stevens over Robbie Benson.

Ultimately, can this Beauty and the Beast be thought of as any kind of success**? I’m not sure, given that almost everything that’s good about it was already great in its predecessor, and all the advances are to do with technology rather than storytelling. It’s certainly worth a watch: it’s a work of high quality in many respects and may in time become a regular alternative to watching the 1991 version. But I doubt it, unless I feel (or want to feel) considerably more glum than usual. A decent film on its own merits, but why watch this when a wonderfully rendered, beautifully performed, much shorter and much, much, much more fun alternative is already out there?

*NOTE: I’ve never been troubled by the (admittedly pertinent) Stockholm Syndrome argument. My interpretation has always been that the Beast is emotionally done for as soon as Belle selflessly takes Maurice’s place in the jail (‘You would do that for him?’), so he’s hardly her captor at all; she has virtual liberty to wander around her prison and is demonstrably able to leave if she wants, though it’s intriguing to speculate how events might have unfolded during her escape had the wolves not turned up. But let’s not go on endlessly – the irony of an overlong review for this movie isn’t lost on me.

**Ask Disney’s financial department this question and they’ll blow smoke in your face from a huge cigar lit from flaming $100 bills, laughing all the while. Probably.

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.

Cockneys vs Zombies

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Brothers Andy and Terry come up with a hare-brained scheme to raise money to save their grandfather’s East End retirement home from demolition: rob a bank! Unfortunately, their plans are interrupted by a zombie invasion, forcing the gang of robbers to fight their way towards the care home to stage a geriatric rescue.

The Bow Bells care home in the East End of London is in a right old two and eight. Residents Ray, Peggy and Hamish (Alan Ford, Honor Blackman and, in his final film, Richard Briers) are just after a quiet life, but Heartman Construction are hell-bent on knocking it down to build flats. Ray’s clueless grandsons Terry and Andy (Rasmus Hardiker and Harry Treadaway) decide that the only way of rescuing the care home is to rob a bank for the cash, which involves bringing in feisty cousin Katie (Michelle Ryan), mate Davey (Jack Doolan) and weapons procurer/all-round nutter Mickey (Ashley Thomas).

Predictably, the job goes horribly wrong and police surround the bank, leading Mickey to take unfortunate Emma and Clive (Georgia King and Tony Gardner) as hostages. Less predictably, careless excavation by Heartman results in a zombie plague, which wipes out the police but also traps the old folk in their home. Are Andy, Terry and the others cowed by the undead hordes? Of course not! They’re cockneys, and tooled-up cockneys at that: if their granddad survived the blitz, they’re not about to let zombies spoil their day.

By rights, Cockneys vs Zombies should fall flat on its face. To begin with, the idea’s reminiscent of Snakes on a Plane: brilliant title, but not necessarily something you can construct a proper film around. Secondly, it’s hardly the freshest of plots, being three parts Shaun of the Dead, two parts From Dusk Till Dawn and dashes of Guy Ritchie’s catalogue and Eastenders. More specifically, how can this plot – and this cast – possibly reconcile its disparate elements into a satisfying whole without coming across as a quirky but stretched TV special?

To some extent these points ring true, because – strangely enough – Cockneys vs Zombies is arguably too good at each different thing it does. Thanks largely to Ashley Thomas’ enthusiastic turn as ‘Mental’ Mickey, the bank robbery and its aftermath feel pretty heavy, making a nonsense of the already-iffy notion that they’re doing it in a good cause. These scenes don’t quite mesh with the convincingly nasty horror elements, and the switching of the tale between the robbers and the old people’s home only adds to the sense of confusion.

Then, on top of all that, there’s the comedy, which is genuinely funny when it arrives (Hamish’s low-speed escape being a highlight); however, unlike Shaun, Cockneys vs Zombies doesn’t primarily want to be funny, which is unfortunate: a cracking Chas’n’Dave song, Head to Head (with the Undead), is relegated to the closing titles when it should have been a star attraction. One can only assume that it was considered too larky to accompany the film’s graphic gore, or that it was commissioned before the director discovered that his movie should be more Dusk Till Dawn than Lesbian Vampire Killers.

It’s worth repeating that the film does its gangster bits, its gory bits and its funny bits well, aided by a cast that by and large handles its Cock-er-nee angle with aplomb. To be honest, Hardiker and Treadaway aren’t the most interesting leads, but Thomas and Doolan are good fun and Ryan makes for a spunky heroine who can really handle a gun, unlike King who is amusingly gauche in the face of the zombie threat*.

The real stars are in the care home, however: the late, great Briers doesn’t have much to do but does it beautifully, Blackman plays working class surprisingly well and Dudley Sutton’s Eric mixes up his rhyming slang hilariously. And it’s lovely to see Ford, East End hard man par excellence, take a starring role. If the host of comedy/soap opera faces can’t help but make the project feel televisual, Hoene does what he can to show the city in ruins, though budget was always clearly going to limit what they could actually put up on the screen.

Cockneys vs Zombies doesn’t fall flat on its face at all. Indeed, compared to the crushing embarrassment and fake Lahndahn accents of many British films, this feels authentic and well-made, even if the authentic swearing eventually gets a bit much. It’s not a laugh riot, nor is it a gore fest, and the dodgy bank job plot occasionally takes it down some unrewarding avenues, but assuming the odd dismembered corpse doesn’t put you off, it’s definitely worth a butcher’s.

NOTES: I’ve not really mentioned the zombies themselves, because they’re unremarkable in and of themselves. It’s curious that they can kill so many people while being so lumbering and unthreatening to our heroes; but hey, that’s the movies.


WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Singing trio The Dreamettes fight their way to stardom, earning their stripes by acting as backing singers to big name James ‘Thunder’ Early. But when their manager Curtis launches the group on their own, the decision to promote beautiful new lover Deena over the more powerfully-built and voiced Effie – his former beau – has far-reaching consequences for them all.

There’s nowt so curious as film fashion. By the end of the 20th Century film musicals were seen as guaranteed box office disasters, only for Moulin Rouge!, Chicago and Mamma Mia! to bring them firmly back into the limelight. Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls is based on a 1980s stage musical, little-known in Britain; but the story should ring many bells with those familiar with the stars of Motown.

The Dreamettes are: belting lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), shy beauty Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and excitable young Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose); and while they wow the crowd at a Detroit talent show, car dealer and self-anointed Dreamettes manager Curtis Taylor Jr (Jamie Foxx) makes it his business to ensure they’re not quite good enough to win.

He then engineers a position for the Dreamettes behind R&B star James Early (Eddie Murphy), a rough and ready soul singer coming off the peak of his fame; Effie needs to be talked round as she finds merely ‘ooo’ing behind Early demeaning, but Lorrell has no such qualms and begins a relationship with the star even though he’s married. Whilst on tour, Curtis usurps the position of James’ manager Marty (Danny Glover) but his attempts to sell Early to a white audience in Miami prove disastrous; so, despite carrying on a relationship with the smitten Effie, Curtis sends the girls – now known simply as ‘The Dreams’ – out on their own with Deena as the lead singer.

Unsurprisingly, Effie is put out by this and not even the concerted efforts of her songwriting brother C.C. (Keith Washington) can keep her in the group; this suits Curtis fine, since he has a replacement standing by and a plan to propel Deena to superstardom, but unbeknownst to him there will always be a reminder of Curtis in Effie’s life as she struggles to forge her own career.

A musical drawing on the incredible catalogue of Motown songs sounds almost too good to be true, and in this case, at least, it is. For whilst Dreamgirls nicely captures the look of 60s Detroit and America’s difficult march towards racial equality during the period, the songs (written by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen) are a sometimes uneasy blend of Motown hooks and 80s musical styling, with the arrangements in particular more modern-sounding than you might expect. Many of the lyrics are hopelessly naïve, too (“We are a family/Like a giant tree”).

What’s more, there are simply far too many songs, many of which are completely unmemorable and poorly used to boot. The film starts off well, with the characters’ staged songs reflecting their actions and emotional states and spoken dialogue advancing the plot; but it later degenerates into a free-for-all with people singing or speaking in semi-random fashion: the quasi-recitative ‘It’s All Over’ is particularly lumpy, but luckily the excellent (if clumsily-titled) ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ follows immediately afterwards.

The biggest problem with Dreamgirls, however, is that it badly lacks the soul you think the almost entirely African-American cast would bring to the party in coachloads. It’s true that Jennifer Hudson brings attitude and feeling to the role of Effie, and Eddie Murphy fitfully lights up the screen as he channels James Brown (the obvious inspiration, along with Marvin Gaye, for Early) in his increasingly erratic performances; but elsewhere the film is painfully bland, the characters’ stories little more than soap opera fodder, with totally predictable ups and downs and an ending that offers no surprises.

Knowles proves once again (after Goldmember) that she is a much better singer than she is an actress, and although Foxx is simultaneously suave and reprehensible there’s no real edge to his record mogul. Dreamgirls has obviously been shaped to receive a particular age rating and therefore cuts away from anything too graphic or difficult in respect of sex or drugs; by contrast, although the domestic violence of the Tina Turner film What’s Love Got to do With it? was uncomfortable, it rang much truer than the clean, relatively unmessy relationships portrayed here.

There are plenty of lesser issues – chiefly the cringe-making take-off of the Jacksons, but also John Lithgow’s extraordinary appearance as a weirdly-coiffed director – but I don’t want to give the impression that Dreamgirls is a bad film. As I say, Hudson and Murphy are both very good, and there’s a simple and direct pleasure to be had from two hours of song and dance: the climactic ‘One Night Only’ is a particular highlight. But Condon had the chance to make something raw, edgy and truly different by taking on this project, and it’s a real shame that instead of hunting out the soul of the story he played safe and filtered it for teenaged fans of Chicago the film, rather than the more adult sensibilities of fans of Chicago the musical.

Devil’s Advocate, The

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Infallible Floridian lawyer Kevin Lomax is tempted to the Big Apple by the prospect of a big money job with a highly impressive, though morally dubious, law firm whose chief is charming rogue John Milton. As Milton takes Lomax under his wing, Kevin’s wife Mary Ann becomes convinced that something isn’t quite right about him or the situation they find themselves in. The discovery of what that something is will send each of them to the brink of what they can endure.

The theme of ‘The Devil Walks among us’ is such a staple of horror films that it almost constitutes a sub-genre (and don’t complain about that being a spoiler – just look at the title); from the clammy tension of The Exorcist and The Omen to more recent fare like The Seventh Sign, the Prince of Darkness has been wheeled out to be the cause of horror, misery and devastation to many an actor and actresses’ life. Taylor Hackford, adapting a novel by Andrew Neiderman, takes a smart approach to the work, presenting what could be a fable about 80s greed and showing that deadly sins – especially vanity – are the province of all levels of society, at all times.

Keanu Reeves is Kevin Lomax, a lawyer who has never lost a case, including, quite miraculously, the one at the film’s beginning where he successfully defends a disgusting male teacher from an allegation of sexual assault. His subsequent celebrations with sexy, round-faced wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) are interrupted by a job offer from New York. Although Lomax initially dismisses the offer, and Kevin’s Bible-reciting mother (Judith Ivey) warns him about the city’s godlessness, the couple head off and soon find themselves housed in an impossibly plush apartment where all the big names in the firm Milton, Chadwick and Waters live, including boss man John Milton (Al Pacino).

Milton, highly charismatic and highly unsettling, takes a shine to Kevin and puts him onto high-profile cases such as a triple-murder, much to the annoyance of associates like Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones); but as Kevin is drawn ever closer to Milton’s way of thinking, and to intriguingly teasing lawyer Christabella (Connie Nielsen), Mary Ann is neglected. She convinces herself that unnatural forces (personified in the wives of the partners who befriend her) are conspiring to make her infertile, with ultimately tragic consequences.

Thanks largely to the magnetism of Pacino’s performance (he is riveting even when hamming it up, as he constantly does here), The Devil’s Advocate is consistently enjoyable, taking the phrase ‘the Devil’s in the detail’ and applying it to the unscrupulous world of lawyers to attack greed, vanity and vaulting ambition. As a courtroom drama with a twist it works quite nicely – if Keanu never loses a case, somebody must be pulling the strings – but around the hour mark, when the element of horror kicks in, the film begins to feel rather half-baked.

Apart from Barzoon’s not particularly grisly demise, most of the terror is concentrated in Mary Ann; and whilst Theron’s not bad at conveying her descent into fear and madness, the point is made with a change of hairstyle and some horror tricks which recall The Shining and From Dusk Til Dawn, not to this film’s advantage. Reeves, meanwhile, is a good choice as the empty vessel that Milton wants to fill with sin and corruption, and his one-dimensional character is suited to the unthinking pursuit of advancement at all costs; but as usual he fails to completely inhabit the role, his lightweight emoting failing to convince that he loves his wife, lusts after his colleague, or understands the full horror of Pacino’s revelations. Every time Pacino gives a wide-eyed stare, flicks his tongue or cackles like a particularly evil Sid James, Keanu’s blandness sticks out a mile.

The climax comes across as bland, too. The other big revelation – that Kevin is in fact the son of the Devil (posing as a waiter!) – should be a defining, shocking moment, yet within the plot of the film it seems to make very little difference, even during the finale. As someone who frequently complains about stock situations in films it seems churlish to bemoan the lack of a chase, or fight, or big-budget showdown in this one, but the fact is that most of the climax consists of a rather static monologue by Milton in his big room as Nielsen undresses and Dracula-like figures writhe in the background. Though it’s noisy, it’s not particularly exciting – and not to give the whole game away, it’s difficult to entirely forgive the ‘start all over again’ conclusion (having slated it so much in Boxing Helena).

If all this sounds very critical, it’s done with a certain amount of affection. For whilst The Devil’s Advocate fails to generate the uneasy atmosphere of the 1970s films mentioned above, it does combine its chills with a number of satisfyingly titillating and comic touches (eg. the cameos by Don King and others, the man walking behind Milton with ‘Halo Lighting’) which speed things along; and it has at its heart a dominant performance from Pacino, who can do terrifying intensity in his sleep. This may be horror-Lite, but occasionally horror-Lite is exactly what’s required.

Private Parts

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: The life and times of ‘shock jock’ Howard Stern, chronicling his rise from college radio to fame and infamy as New York’s number 1 DJ; and his turbulent relationship with Alison, his college sweetheart, who frequently finds her private life featured in, or at odds with, her husband’s very public outrages.

When a film opens with its central figure dropping in to an awards ceremony as ‘Fartman’, you quickly get the idea that it’s not going to be Gandhi, regardless of whether you’re actually acquainted with the man inside the costume. I only had the vaguest of ideas about Howard Stern before watching this film, so it served as a useful introduction as well as a history.

First impressions are not exactly favourable, as a host of rock stars at the awards show look upon Stern (played by the man himself), a gangling figure with 80s Soft Metal hair, with a mixture of amusement and contempt. His narrated pleas that he is misunderstood are compromised by his lecherous undressing of women, notably the cute passenger to whom he tells his life story on a flight back to his family the next day.

Howard is the son of a radio engineer, and although his father hardly encourages his offspring to follow in his footsteps, Howard falls in love with radio anyway and is determined to forge a career in broadcasting. His first attempts in college are clumsy, a statement which applies to his wooing of women as much as his radio manner; but a prize-winning film helps him bag pretty student Alison (Mary McCormack). Neither his career nor his marriage to Alison are immediate successes, but Howard eventually relaxes into the role of DJ, toning down his Kermit-alike voice and injecting comedy to go with the music with the help of voices man Fred Norris (also himself) and willingly naughty news anchor Robin Quivers (herself).

The team zoom up the career ladder but court controversy at every step, not least when Stern shares details of his wife’s miscarriage with jokes that everyone – not least Mrs Stern – finds tasteless. They also find that the big NBC networks, to which Stern delivers huge audiences with his near-the-knuckle material, have big concerns about the material. In New York especially, programme manager Kenny (Paul Giamatti) has Stern as his nemesis, and no amount of threats, trickery, punishment or pleading will prevent Howard from causing a furore, the listeners desperate to hear ‘what he’s going to say next.’

It would be ridiculous to complain about Private Parts being rude even if you’ve never heard of Howard Stern and what he’s famous for – there’s a pretty big clue in the title, after all. It’s clear from the off that Stern is a letch and neither he nor the film make any bones about it, recreating many scenes where he came into contact with women (nearly all large-breasted, it would appear) or, in the film’s big set-piece, gave them pleasure over the airwaves. Much of this is entirely gratuitous, of course, but the nudity is part and parcel of Stern’s universe and fits in as such.

The issue, then, ceases to be one of taste and becomes one of credibility, as the film strives to present Howard as both an outrageous, sex-obsessed loon and at the same time a faithful, caring family man. Strangely, Private Parts succeeds by presenting Stern as both the hugely successful, hugely egotistical hero of American radio, and also the insecure, ridiculous loser looked on with derision (as in the first scene, reflected at the end in another imaginary awards show), immensely conscious of the limitations of his voice and of his own private parts. The balance between the two predictably skews towards Stern as a good guy, loyal to his colleagues and never actually straying from his wife, but the film is by no means a whitewash, although the interlude with the actress early in the Sterns’ marriage is suspiciously clean.

By having most of the key players as themselves, Private Parts also feels authentic, with Robin Quivers in particular providing good rapport with Stern; however, when the film occasionally presents documentary-style talking heads, the presence of actresses such as McCormack and station manager Allison Janney (very funny, as usual) jars alongside the ‘real’ personalities. It’s also clear that the character of Kenny, an obnoxious little upstart played with endearing pugnacity/pugnaciousness by Giamatti, is a composite created to vindicate many of Stern’s more extreme broadcasts, but crucially the action is – by and large – funny, and in the final summary this is what really matters.

The comedy derived from Stern’s story is important because outside of America in particular, the level of recognition and interest in Howard Stern is necessarily limited. There are many people for whom Private Parts will be an instant turn off, and more still who will dislike the ‘hero’ enough in the first five minutes to shut the film off and never go back to it. In general, though, Stern shows enough of his flaws, and Betty Thomas delivers laughter with a sufficiently light touch, to make this movie an enjoyably adult romp.