Tag Archives: 10/20

Carry on Constable

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: London’s thin blue line is stretched to the limit by a ‘flu epidemic, forcing one station to bring in a rum bunch of raw recruits. As the rookies get themselves into a series of disastrous scrapes and singularly fail to keep law or order, the put-upon sergeant – already fed up with his Inspector – wonders whether he’d be better off with an empty station.

When ‘flu hits the cop shop run by fish-loving Inspector Mills (Eric Barker), he puts the pressure on Sergeant Wilkins (Sid James) to come up with a solution, threatening to transfer him sharpish if he fails. Unfortunately, the solution that presents itself at the station’s front desk is less than promising: superior Stanley Benson (Kenneth Williams), convinced that phrenology holds the key to identifying criminal types; superstitious, cannily-named astrologer/astrologist Charlie Constable (Kenneth Connor); and upper-crust Tom Potter (Leslie Phillips), a man with an eye for the ladies but not necessarily much of a knack for policing.

The troublesome trio are joined by budgie-fancying Special Constable Gorse (Charles Hawtrey) and super-efficient WPC Gloria Passworthy (Joan Sims), who makes Sgt Moon (Hattie Jacques) suspicious and gives Constable Constable some very unprofessional ideas – so long as she’s a Virgo, that is.

As the new recruits are put up in their compact lodgings (the cells!) and put through their paces, they prove to be as much of a hindrance to Wilkins as a help, with Benson and Gorse dragging up, Some Like It Hot-style, to catch shoplifters and Potter spending more time giving relationship advice than preventing crime. But there are a bunch of bank robbers hiding out in the area, and with the pressure on to bring them – or anyone – to book, the new recruits spy a chance to prove to Mills that they’re not completely useless.

You could, if you squint in a certain way, see Carry On Constable as a precursor to Police Academy; however, though the plot is essentially similar, the films are worlds apart in their sensibilities, as indeed is this fledgling effort (number 4 in the series) to the later Carry On films. Other than a few tantalising glimpses of young lady flesh, and rather more male nudity, the comedy is of a much more genteel nature than the series’ 1970s efforts, which is a double-edged sword: there are sequences that come across as merely daft rather than funny, and a few that don’t work at all (mostly the dog-walking larks); but on the upside, the amount of care that writer Norman Hudis has put in to creating lively, funny and credible characters is something that Williams, James, Connor et al would surely have killed for in the later efforts.

Williams has an absolute ball as the snooty officer who thinks he knows everything but is constantly made to look foolish, whilst Leslie Phillips, admittedly playing to type, enjoys cosying up to Shirley Eaton’s confused young lover and anyone else in a skirt. Sid James, in his first Carry On (and pre-Babs chasing), is marvellously down-to-earth and Hawtrey shows just how good he could be before his parts were written around his drinking: ‘Priceless innuendo, how witty!’ he observes joyously during a raucous parade. On top of these game performances and those of Jacques, Sims and others, there are wonderful cameo appearances from the likes of Joan Hickson as a friendly old soak and Esma Cannon as (what else?) an old dear Benson unwillingly drags across the road.

Impressively, the film also manages to squeeze in a half-decent action story as by pure luck the novices stumble onto the robbers’ hideaway; plus, there’s a nicely cynical attitude towards work hierarchy (the inspector takes all the credit and none of the blame) and a clutch of rather sweet matches made during the happy ending – happy for everyone, that is, except Barker’s Mills, the authority figure who gets the short straw and is perhaps the least effective presence, though it’s equally likely that I’m not familiar enough with Eric Barker’s considerable body of work to appreciate his comparatively mannered style.

In my callow youth I associated older films, especially those in black and white, with a sort of corny, unsophisticated comedy (possibly based on snippets of Will Hay and Norman Wisdom films). Having seen movies such as Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykillers and Alastair Sim’s Scrooge, I now know what a simplistic view that was. I wouldn’t claim that Carry On Constable is the equal of any of those British greats; neither has it the lively spirit of the series in its mid- to late-sixties stride. However, it is charming whilst being winkingly daring and the cast’s energy knocks spots off the lethargic, lazy motions of the Carry Ons’ later years.

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Scream

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: A masked killer starts slashing up the teens at Woodsboro High School, bringing back painful memories for Sidney Prescott, whose mother met a grisly end the previous year. As the teams follow scary movie etiquette and gather at a remote farmhouse, dozy cop Dewey does his best to track down the killer, with gung-ho reporter Gail Weathers in hot pursuit.

‘Do you like scary movies?’ With this innocuous question, an intimidating caller intrigues then terrifies young house sitter Casey (Drew Barrymore), before the caller reveals himself to be a black-clad, ghost-faced, knife-wielding killer. Casey’s subsequent violent death – and that of her boyfriend Steve – sets tongues wagging at Woodsboro High School; but while boys Billy, Randy and Stu (Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy and Matthew Lillard), and Stu’s sometime girlfriend Tatum (Rose McGowan) find the horror movie-like events grimly fascinating, Billy’s unhappy girlfriend Sidney (Neve Campbell) has reason to be worried.

Sid’s mother was raped and murdered a year previously, and the killer makes a beeline for her at the High School, bumping off interfering staff on the way. Tatum’s brother, police Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), tries to look after the youngsters, but he’s not the most effective cop in the world and his head is easily turned by Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox), the reviled reporter who made a name for herself writing about Sid’s mom’s murder. Despite a curfew, the gang congregates for a scary movie night at Stu’s place, where Sid and Billy work out their intimacy issues and the killer – suspected to be Sidney’s father – makes his presence felt. But who, if anyone, will live to see the murderer unmasked?

As the WFTB film review library has grown, it has revealed that your reviewer naturally gravitates towards certain broad genres – comedy, action – and away (in so far as you can gravitate away from anything – anti-gravitate?) from others, most notably horror. So it’s with that caveat that I say the following: at their best, horror* films make you jump, squirm, or plead with the protagonist not to go upstairs/into the woods/wherever. They can make for a supremely uncomfortable experience, and while I rarely enjoy that experience, it can be thrilling and I know many people love to be scared (as this film loves to remind us, John Carpenter’s Halloween is an object lesson in squirmy, screamy terror).

And to begin with, Scream promises to deliver exactly the same kind of thrills as the seventies slasher movies it riffs on; Casey’s death at the hands of a sinister voyeur is horrible and shocking, but pitched absolutely right. From then, however, Craven’s movie (written by Kevin Williamson, who would follow up with I Know What You Did Last Summer) becomes far too self-conscious about what it’s doing, throwing in abundant horror references (the school janitor’s called Fred) to go with the endless discussion about horror movies and what makes them work.

Scream’s meta-cinematic approach is undoubtedly clever, and has much to offer connoisseurs of the genre; but it also detracts immensely from becoming immersed in the film. There are constant reminders of what we’re watching (’This is life…it isn’t a movie,’ says Sid: ’It’s all one big movie,’ retorts Billy), and while this is intellectually quite good fun, it doesn’t generate the fear we need to get involved in the killer’s pursuit of Sidney and his other victims.

The treatment of ‘Ghostface’ is a little strange too: when he’s stalking the girls directly, he’s extremely menacing (witness how he methodically cleans his blade); but at other times he appears without any fanfare, and he’s strangely prone to being attacked, though he’s only temporarily debilitated. His ultimate identity is interesting and I won’t spoil that for anyone here; but what happens post-reveal feels nasty. Not in a guts-to-your-eyebrows Peter Jackson way, either, but grubby and unnecessarily humiliating. As for Randy’s ‘one last scare’ observation, I prefer – in a thriller – not to be told what’s going to happen immediately before it happens (though it does, of course, set up Sid for her inevitable one-liner).

Perhaps because the film is consciously mimicking the tropes of the genre, the girls come out of Scream a lot better than the boys. Campbell’s Sidney is a convincingly imperilled screamer, her instincts telling her to run, her determination making her fight back when push comes to shove. She’s also just virginal enough to be the heroine, in contrast to Tatum, whose sexuality is all up front and obviously earmarks her as a victim, according to the rules.

The boys, meanwhile, are a strange bunch. Ulrich’s intensity eventually gets the better of him, and while I instinctively like Matthew Lillard, I struggle to think of anything I’ve liked him in and his Stu is distractingly over-the-top. The same is true of the older cast: Courtney Cox easily escapes her television boundaries in a surprisingly hard-headed role, while future ex-husband David Arquette makes much less of an impact as the interminably soft Dewey. Still, he’s pretty effective as comic relief, and his puppy-like concern for both Sid and Gail is cute.

I didn’t respond to Scream, as you might be able to tell; but it evidently touched a raw nerve with a new generation looking for old-school scares, as the ubiquitous sequels, two independent spoofs (Scary Movie and Shriek if etc.), a slew of fresh teen slasher pics and remakes of seventies originals all attest. Not my bag, then, but by no means a bad movie – and whatever its faults, it can‘t be held responsible for some of the rubbish it inspired.

NOTES: Not just horror films, actually. No matter how many times I see it, the bobbing head at the start of Jaws always scares the proverbial out of me.

Deconstructing Harry

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Writer Harry Block, suffering from a case of writer’s block, hopes that a road trip back to his old school with some unusual companions will ease his worries. However, the impending marriage of the girl he loves constantly plays on his mind, as do characters from his books. His creations start to give him advice, until he barely knows what is real and what is a dream.

All but the most attentive Woody Allen fan would be excused for starting to find his films, by 1997, something of a blur. With the previous year’s Everyone Says I Love You he had spiced up his trademark brand of tortured relationship angst with song and dance; for Deconstructing Harry, he swings the other way and delivers his most adult film yet, littered with Anglo-Saxon obscenities, a sprinkling of sex and nudity, and a jarring editing style which sees scenes jump-cutting at seemingly random points.

The basic story remains the same, however. Allen is Harry Block, a depressive, neurotic writer with three failed marriages behind him, one of which (to psychiatrist Kirstie Alley) has given him a nine year-old son. Although Harry is successful, his habit of placing ‘thinly disguised’ versions of himself and his real-life experiences in his stories causes no end of difficulty for his friends and lovers, most notably his last wife’s sister Lucy (Judy Davis), with whom he had an affair.

Surviving Lucy pointing a gun at him, Allen escapes with his son, friend Richard (Bob Balaban) and easy-going prostitute Cookie (Hazelle Goodman) to his old school, whose staff are celebrating his achievements as a writer; Harry, however, is pre-occupied with trying to stop his last girlfriend Fay (Elisabeth Shue) from getting married to fellow writer Larry (Billy Crystal).

So far, so Allen. Apart from the edgier style (mirroring Harry’s disjointed life, as the film unnecessarily spells out), this version of Woody being more overtly sex-addicted than others (he loves whores!), Deconstructing Harry is filled out by the recreation of Harry’s stories on the screen. Hence, Lucy becomes Leslie in the re-enactment and is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Kirstie Alley’s Joan becomes Demi Moore’s Helen; and Allen’s alter egos are portrayed variously by Tobey Maguire, Stanley Tucci and Richard Benjamin, amongst others.

Things get really complicated when Benjamin and Moore start appearing in Harry’s world, dispensing the advice that he doesn’t want to hear, and elements from Harry’s ‘real’ life (for example Larry) begin to prop up in Harry’s fantasies, including a sharp discussion between Allen and Crystal in Hell, where (for some reason) most of the naked ladies live.

The key question, of course, is does it work? Well, none of the swearing, editing or bare flesh add much to the film, except to take attention away from Allen’s one-liners which are limited in number but still pretty good when they arrive. Harry’s stories vary in holding the interest: a short tale in which actor Mel goes out of focus, forcing his family to wear glasses to see him properly, is fun (though Robin Williams, playing Mel, doesn’t do much); but another, supposedly satirising Harry’s father, in which a man confesses to his wife of thirty years that he killed and ate his previous family doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Similarly, the conceit of Harry’s characters visiting him is interesting but, if anything, not enough is made of it. When Richard dies, he visits Harry in his jail cell soon after (he has been humiliatingly arrested for kidnap, drug possession and soliciting all at the same time), exhorting the value of being alive. This is meant to be a further extension of Harry’s neuroses, finally resolved as he realises he can only cope with life by treating everyone else as a fictional character, and framing everyone in the film as potentially the product of his imagination; but whether it’s truly effective I don’t know. Personally, I found it less successful than the integration of ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ characters in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, but equally I found a second viewing of Allen’s film a lot less jarring than the first.

I am completely ambivalent about Deconstructing Harry. On the one hand it’s more of the same, an amusing exploration of Allen’s twisted life and loves in which Woody himself is looking increasingly ill-suited as a romantic lead; on the other it’s a brave experiment which doesn’t completely succeed, packed with a host of star names (all of whom act very well) but still likely to offend more old Allen fans than it attracts new ones. In short, not quite the sum of its complicated parts, but worth sitting through for flashes of brilliance. Or vice versa.

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.