Tag Archives: 10/20

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Through a calculating catalogue of interventions, inscrutable Michael Rimmer rises from a nobody to the head of a marketing and polling company, attracting the attention of leading politicians as he goes. Gaining a pretty wife and a safe Tory seat, Rimmer continues to climb the greasy pole until he becomes unopposed ruler of the country. Will nobody stop him?

When he walks into the tatty offices of Fairburn marketing agency claiming to work in ‘Coordination’, no-one gives smartly-dressed Michael Rimmer (Peter Cook) a second glance; certainly not Mr Ferret (Arthur Lowe), whose gaze is firmly fixed on secretary Tanya (Valerie Leon). However, once Rimmer has his foot in the door, he starts making huge changes: firstly, out goes Ferret, leaving Rimmer in charge of day-today business such as sexing up a campaign for humble humbugs; next, he sexes up the company’s surveys in the name of publicity, acquiring the talents of rival pollster Peter Niss (Denholm Elliott) and using them to destroy the credibility of Peter’s former employers.

As Michael’s star rises, he comes to the attention of Conservative leader Tom Hutchinson (Ronald Fraser); Michael duly helps to get the Tories elected, partly by sending out signals that the party is anti-immigration (much to the horror of Richard Pearson’s shadow Home Secretary), partly by giving terrible advice to the Labour incumbent at No. 10, Blacket (George A. Cooper). He also manages to acquire his own safe seat and a trophy wife in fallen show-jumper Pat (Vanessa Howard), though – as she is to find out – Rimmer’s ambition is all-consuming, and apparently without morals or limits.

Grrr. I’ve seen The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer twice in fairly short succession, and I have no idea whether I actually like it or not. I should, by rights, love it, since it features a host of the best British comic/satirical faces that the 1970s – or any time period – has to offer. I’ve not even referred to John Cleese’s wonderfully fawning performance as Pumer above, so you can imagine that the cast is pretty stellar: aficionados of British comedy will lap up the brilliance of Lowe and Fraser, while enjoying cameos by Ronnie Corbett, Diana Coupland, Graham Crowden, Frank Thornton and many more.

What’s more, the script, by Cleese, Graham Chapman, Cook and director Kevin Billington, is full of sharp little jokes that get to the heart of the game played by all politicians, ie. break your manifesto promises and ‘blame the last lot’. I particularly like Hutchinson’s line ‘I will act…in matters of principle I’m always acting.’ Much of the material feels remarkably fresh, showing how little politics has moved on in forty years – where West Indians used to be the bogeymen, it’s now East Europeans; summits with the US President are trumpeted to the hilt, however pointless they turn out to be. Plus, in the jaw-droppingly rude advert for Scorpio humbugs, the film absolutely nails the maxim “sex sells”. Satisfyingly – if that’s the word – the scene is clever, funny, quite a turn-on and makes a point.

On the other hand, I’m not convinced that Michael Rimmer quite works as a film, especially at this distance of time. Most obviously, there are the 1970s references that you’ll need a history guide to appreciate: Cooper puffs a good pipe as the PM, but the Harold Wilson stuff is pretty meaningless – did he use tarot cards and follow astrology? Was he obsessed with being on television? Does it matter? Then there’s the inevitable crumpet factor deployed in Billington’s entirely un-satirical close-ups – at times the film could almost be Carry On Conniving.

Furthermore, although the film manages to drive a story line through material that could have felt a lot sketchier, the subplots aren’t developed fully: Niss’s play for Pat peters out, Vanessa Howard baring all for no great reward; and Ferret’s humiliations build rather awkwardly to his own pay-off. On which note, while the penultimate idea – granting a referendum on everything, then promising an end to the referenda in exchange for dictatorship – is smart, Michael Rimmer’s parting shot is poorly chosen.

The parallels to the JFK shooting are pretty close to the knuckle; not only that, the scene is without any obvious satirical or comic content – apart from the would-be assassins cancelling each other out – and results in the viewer leaving the film with an oddly numb sensation, not helped by the sinister, abrupt freeze frame (Billington’s direction in general is workmanlike). It’s not as if everything in the main plot sings, either; the assault on Swiss gold via a very British cold makes for a picturesque but unfunny five or six minutes.

Then there’s the issue of the lead turn. I prefer Cook here compared to Bedazzled, but he glides through the film with a single, self-satisfied expression on his face. It’s clearly done for a reason, to show the calculating, emotionless way people can slide their way up the greasy pole, and in a sense it’s right that Rimmer should be something of a blank; but Cook’s one-note performance doesn’t do much for the film as entertainment – we don’t feel connected to him as either hero or villain. Compare Cook to Lowe, or Elliott, or anyone else who injects nuance into his or her performance (or, to put it another way, acts) and you’ll see what I mean.

Most comedies suffer from a paucity of acting and writing talent: Michael Rimmer’s tragedy is that it has too much, and the writers haven’t been able to marshal it all: who in their right minds lets a brilliant Cleese slip quietly out of their movie; a befuddled Corbett; a gorgeous Leon? I’m relieved that the film lacks the scabrous misanthropy of The Magic Christian, disappointed that there are only rare glimpses of Pythonesque glee (the Election night coverage offers rare glimpses), and overall…no, still can’t tell you. If it helps, I picked this up for 99p in a high street store; at that price, it’s worth every penny.

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Basic Instinct

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Troubled San Francisco Detective Nick Curran investigates the violent, mid-intercourse murder of rock star Johnny Boz. Nick is intrigued by Catherine Tramell, Johnny’s novelist girlfriend, who wrote about a similar murder in one of her novels and talks unashamedly about her sexual exploits; but by starting a relationship with the main suspect, is Nick inviting the same fate as the unfortunate Mr Boz?

It’s the stuff of lurid tabloid headlines: rock star turned political donor Johnny Boz is stabbed in the neck, nose and most other places at the point of sexual release, the weapon a cheap but deadly ice pick. Newly-sober Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and his partner Gus (George Dzundza) approach the murder with a grim sense of humour, but the investigations quickly take a disturbing turn when it emerges that Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), Johnny’s independently wealthy sometime sleeping partner, has written a trashy novel in which a famous rocker is murdered – with an ice pick.

Catherine’s frank talk (and lack of underwear) under interview arouses…suspicion, but she always seems one step ahead, especially where Nick is concerned. Curran (nicknamed ‘shooter’ by unsympathetic colleagues) is being watched carefully by Lt Nilsen’s (Daniel Von Bargen) Internal Affairs and psychiatrist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a former squeeze nursing the cop back to respectability after alcoholism, the death of his wife and the accidental shooting of innocent tourists; but Nick’s helpless in the face of Catherine’s psychological games and the pair pursue a torrid affair, much to the anger of Tramell’s sometime girlfriend Roxy (Leilani Sarelle). Roxy, then Nilsen, turn up dead, putting Curran in the frame along with Catherine. Is she using the cop as a smokescreen, as inspiration for her work, or are her motives more deadly still? Or could someone be setting them both up?

Before going anywhere else, I have to tackle the notorious interview scene wherein Sharon Stone – how to put this? – shows us she’s a lady. In part, Catherine’s explicit leg-uncrossing is gratuitous and reprehensible, existing solely to generate controversy, press and ticket sales (a job it did rather well). On the other hand, you could argue that the scene is not about Stone’s bits but the reaction of her uneasy male audience; and if you see the scene this way, it adds to the oppressive, brooding atmosphere of the movie, which sees overt female sexuality as a terrifying and sinister thing – listen to Jerry Goldsmith’s strings lurking whenever Stone is on screen.

Catherine’s unashamed enjoyment of sex is the lurid but intriguing backbone of Basic Instinct, and Verhoeven’s typically unabashed portrayal of the act makes for a visually arresting adult film where the sex is crucial to both theme and plot. The theme is reinforced by Curran’s actions; his impulses are just about held in check as the film begins, but they are unleashed by Catherine’s self-confidence and he slowly becomes her male mirror image – smoking, drinking, fornicating and so on.

Like so many Verhoeven films, Basic Instinct isn’t pretty and its characters don’t give a flying fornication about being lovable; however, the relentlessly direct nature of the film is enthralling, even if you feel a bit grubby about being enthralled – it has to be said that Curran’s frenetic coupling with Garner looks uncomfortably like a rape.

So, is there anything to the film other than its sexual shenanigans? Well…as a pulpy cop thriller it works well enough, with a juicily high body count, good rapport between the increasingly wayward Curran and his buddy Gus, and a fair number of potential candidates for the crimes, although the film can really only be viewed once with any real sense of suspense. There are also some decently-handled car chases and stunts, making obligatory use of San Francisco’s steep streets and winding mountain roads; and the cast throw themselves into their parts with admirable candour, trusting the director to tell a story which will not always show their best sides, physically or otherwise.

Douglas’ Curran is a powder keg waiting to explode, while Stone’s beautiful but cold Tramell keeps the viewer guessing: are her rare moments of grief genuine or another psychological trick? On the minus side, some of the dialogue has a scummy quality which identifies it as trademark Eszterhas, while San Francisco’s neon nightclub is drearily reminiscent of his and Verhoeven’s tragic Showgirls (and Douglas looks every bit as awkward at a disco as a near-50-year-old should).

Finally, while the mid-movie reprise of the opening scene is a canny piece of drama, the climax becomes increasingly over-wrought; in the coda the film blows it altogether, with a patience-trying third outing of the bed scene and a thoroughly silly final few seconds – unless there’s a message that we’re all potentially homicidal sex fiends.

In miniature homage to the Four Word Film Review website, I occasionally consider summing up each review ‘In a Word’ (I know, that’s been done too); and the word I would give Basic Instinct is ‘splashy’, with all the connotations that brings. In one sense, it’s merely a routine thriller with a European director’s disregard for modesty, an episode of Columbo with nudity and soft(-ish) porn angles; then again, Hollywood thrives on a bit of nasty, sordid pulp now and then, and unlike dreck such as Showgirls and Madonna’s horrible Body of Evidence, this one is thoroughly absorbing. I’m just not sure it’s made by people who have a very high – or perhaps any – regard for women, and that makes it very hard to praise.

Team America: World Police

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Brilliant young actor Gary Johnston is recruited to America’s top terrorist-fighting organisation to infiltrate terrorist cells and discover who is really pulling the strings. But can Team America survive the emotional disruption that Gary’s arrival brings? And can Gary resolve his conflicted mind on discovering the identity of the evil-doers’ key American ally?

The brains behind South Park take on World affairs in Team America: World Police in the style you would expect: trying to be as offensive as possible to as many people as possible in as short a time as possible. The difference here is that instead of 2D animation, the story is revealed Thunderbirds-style, the action unfolding through marionettes and models.

Team America live inside Mount Rushmore with a fleet of vehicles at their disposal, and consist of the usual mix: gruff, actor-hating Chris, empathic Sarah, sexy blonde psychologist Lisa and sappy pilot Joe, under the direction of kinky leader Spottswoode. When Gary is brought into the team to use his acting skills, there is plenty of love but not much harmony.

To start with the positives, the puppeteering itself is used to great effect. When used well it goes unnoticed, but during the frequent fight scenes the mess of limbs reminds you of what you are watching. Characters occasionally have trouble walking too, and their childish motion is always funny. Parker revels in the limitations of the form as well as the possibilities, throwing in a sex scene between our hero Gary and Lisa which would never get past the censors with live actors. A later scene where Gary copiously vomits (seemingly) his own body weight in green sick does make you wince as you watch, but it is still funny in a gross-out fashion.

Many of the jokes are pitched at this level and explain why the film overall is not more satisfying to watch. The juvenile humour sits alongside other elements which give the film something of a split personality. Firstly, the film is a would-be parody of big-budget action movies, of the Michael Bay variety in particular (it even steals Armageddon’s ‘Worst bits of The Bible’ line).

Whilst it is quite amusing to see blockbusters portrayed in puppet form, the original movies themselves are so overblown that they are almost impossible to parody – if you don’t find Bay et al’s films a little ridiculous already, you won’t find anything odd about Team America. The same is true of the score; if live action films don’t actually contain songs called America – F**k yeah!, they imply the sentiment so strongly that this film’s emphasis is redundant.

Secondly, Team America tries to be a scurrilous satire, and this too comes in two parts. America’s attitude to and perception of the rest of the world is very bluntly sent up, Team America accidentally blowing up great monuments like the Sphinx and the Eiffel Tower in the defence of freedom, Gary disguising himself as a (literally) towel-headed Arab; at the other extreme, the appeasing nature of liberal Hollywood actors (a glittering roster of names like Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin, Matt Damon (‘Matt Damon!’)) is lampooned, showing the Film Actor’s Guild (F.A.G., ha ha) metaphorically in bed with the bad guys, specifically Kim Jong Il in Cartman mode.

Having a go at both ends of the spectrum at the same time reveals that the film ultimately doesn’t have a position, and is content to take the piss out of everything. In fact, the satire doesn’t really sit alongside the juvenile humour: the satire is conveyed with juvenile humour: the spoof of Rent; the rubbish computer called INTELLIGENCE; the ‘FAG’ joke.

The big ‘dicks, pussies and assholes’ speech at the end is meant to be the culmination of Gary’s journey and an apologia for American intervention, but it’s not at all clever and only funny if you’re not bored of the swearing by this time.

And thus the disappointment with Team America: World Police as a whole. It will definitely make you laugh more than once, but asks you to be two audiences at once. You want to be under eighteen to really enjoy its scatology, over eighteen to really get its philosophy. I would certainly recommend South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut over this for a near-the-knuckle comedy that savagely says something about its country of origin.

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.

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.