Tag Archives: 12/20

Men who Stare at Goats, The

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Throwing himself into the Iraq War to escape his failed marriage, reporter Bob Wilton encounters ex-Army man Lyn Cassady, a self-styled super-soldier possibly equipped with psychic powers. As Bob learns of the origins of Lyn’s powers and the New Earth Army, he alternates between scepticism, wonder, and trying to avoid being kidnapped or shot.

Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) works for a small-town Michigan paper; but while writing disbelieving pieces about local crazies such as Army veteran Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), who babbles on about psychic super-soldiers and claims to have (almost) stared his pet hamster to death, he fails to notice that his wife has fallen in love with his editor.

In a funk, Bob ‘goes to war’ but struggles to get into American-occupied Iraq, until he meets up with Gus’s former colleague Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) in Kuwait. As the pair travel into Iraq, Lyn tells Bob about the US Army’s Project Jedi, initiated by his mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who saw a vision after being shot in Vietnam. With the enthusiastic support of Brigadier General Hopgood (Stephen Lang) – and after many New Age travels – Bill created the New Earth Army, a unit dedicated to non-lethal combat and using psychic powers such as cloudbursting, invisibility and mind control to achieve their aims.

Lyn’s impressive Jedi powers made him the Unit’s star pupil, but he increasingly became wary of the uses to which his skills were being put, especially when he literally stared at a goat until its heart stopped. Jealous colleague Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), meanwhile, had no qualms about the ‘dark side’, whether it was using LSD on a soldier with tragic consequences, or cursing Lyn with the ‘Death Palm’. The truth about Lyn’s destiny may be less mystical, but it’s equally devastating and features an unexpected meeting with old acquaintances – that is, if he doesn’t get himself and Bob killed in Iraq en route.

The Men Who Stare at Goats offers up plenty of ammunition to its detractors. Perhaps because of the quirky subject matter, perhaps because of the involvement of Bridges (The Big Lebowski) and Clooney (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading) – or a combination of both – the film has the distinct feel of a Coen Brothers project. Not that this is a bad thing in and of itself, of course, but Goats does that Coenesque thing of mixing dark themes with details and dialogue that border on the whimsical, such as the explanation of the ‘Predator’ weapon and pretty much all of Bob’s marital strife – why does his wife’s lover have a prosthetic arm?

The set-up to the main action feels contrived, the coincidences of Bob meeting up with Lyn whilst doodling the All Seeing Eye stretching credibility, even if this sort of mystical destiny is the point of the film. Unfortunately, the movie never really knows itself whether Bill’s teachings have real foundation or are essentially hogwash; the chaotic climax (or ‘Bill’s revenge’, as it might be called) is juvenile, and the final images are a clumsy attempt to express symbolically a hippy-tinged blandishment – hey man, if you open your mind, it doesn’t matter if you can’t really walk through walls, ‘cos, hey, you’re kind of doing it anyway.

On the other hand, much about Goats is utterly absorbing. The film opens with a credit that claims ‘more of this is true than you would believe’, and as it skilfully shows the foundation and operation of the New Earth Army you find yourself wanting to believe in Project Jedi – given what we know about Cold War paranoia, it’s very easy to believe that such a Project was set up in response to a Russian response to a complete hoax. Goats also intelligently contrasts the innocent, pacifist aims of the New Earth Army with the cynicism of modern, corporation-led modern warfare: the gunfight between rival private security firms is utterly believable, and the Guantanamo-style horror of Hooper’s compound shows that Bill’s New-age idealism has become subverted, perverted, monetised, weaponised. Furthermore, even if Bill and Lyn’s story doesn’t conclude in particularly satisfactory fashion, Bridges and Clooney are charismatic enough to ensure that our journey with them is both amusing and affecting during the spritely 94-minute running time. Their pathos and belief in their gifts – despite occasional contradictory evidence – is funny, touching, and in complete contrast to the grim humourlessness of Green Zone. Kevin Spacey is brilliantly unpleasant, while Lang’s bug-eyed Hopgood is great fun; even McGregor, who has a tough time staking his place as the uninitiated observer, warms into the part, though a significant amount of his charm undoubtedly comes from a recognition of clever casting – who better to talk about Jedi nonsense than the young Obi-Wan?

So, The Men Who Stare at Goats will absolutely not be to everyone’s tastes. If you like your War Films loud, intense and patriotic, you’ll find this far too liberal and sneering; however, if you’re willing to embrace the unconventional and have a keen sense of the satirical – and appreciate acting so good it looks effortless – this movie offers a great deal of fun, no little emotion, and a fascinating, sly insight into the extreme edges of modern warfare. And don’t let the jokey title put you off: this movie actually has something to say on top of its attention-grabbing eccentricity.

Gods and Monsters

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: James Whale, the revered, retired and increasingly frail director of the famous ‘Frankenstein’ films, looks back on his life and loves under the disapproving gaze of his severe housekeeper. His young gardener agrees to sit to be painted by Whale and is fascinated by the man, but remains unsure of his motives.

Bill Condon’s film, from Christopher Bram’s novel, is an intimate affair, focusing mainly on the last few weeks in the life of troubled film director James Whale (played by Ian McKellen). Whale has survived a tough, working-class English upbringing and the displeasure of his father to become a man of fine tastes and vision – he directed the first film version of Show Boat, after all – but all anyone really wants to know about, including a gauche young student who comes to interview him, is the schlocky Frankenstein films he turned out.

Naturally, this is the last thing Whale himself wants to discuss so he makes his own fun by making the poor young man strip (not that, as it happens, he particularly minds); however, when Whale suffers a stroke it becomes clear that he is seriously ill, and we find out that only strong medication is keeping his mind from being flooded with a hundred thoughts at once.

Despite his infirmity, Whale becomes interested in his gardener, an ex-marine called Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser). Boone is avowedly heterosexual yet the pair strike up an awkward friendship when Boone consents to be painted by the director. However, the portrait is destined never to be completed, either because Boone is freaked out by the old man’s lurid stories, or Whale is irritated by the youngster’s brashness. Overseeing them both is stern East European maid Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), who frets for her master’s soul as much as for the propriety of the goings-on within the house.

The description of the film as ‘intimate’ works on two levels: the film details both characters’ love lives closely, giving them and the viewer insights into both homosexual and heterosexual love; also, the film for the most part feels quite small, spent largely within Whale’s house, although there are occasional flashbacks to Whale’s life as a boy, as a soldier in the (so-called) Great War, and even a few recreations of the filming of Bride of Frankenstein, plus an entertaining visit to a party thrown by George Cukor and patronised by Princess Margaret, where Whale embarrasses the still-working (so still in the closet) director and faces his own monsters when brought face-to-face with Boris Karloff and other stars from his films.

As the film progresses, attempts are made to link the theme of Frankenstein with the director’s own predicament: ‘Alone: bad. Friend: Good.’ These are largely successful, and the tale Whale tells of his lover Barnett being snagged on barbed wire, his body visible for weeks after his death, is very moving, but it does mean that the film verges on being talky for much of its running time, concentrating on the characters’ feelings rather than their actions.

Accordingly, it is vital that the acting is of good quality and Ian McKellen is gloriously fruity as Whale, leering over young flesh with a keen eye whilst retaining the frailties of his situation. Redgrave is also excellent, and whilst Fraser is comparatively lumpy (his explanation about why he is a marine in name only fails to move as much as Whale’s stories) he does everything that is asked of him and is convincing enough when he finally rejects both Whale’s advances and his drastic request.

Gods and Monsters is a fine little film which tells a touching and finally tragic story of a man whose cult success overshadowed the films he regarded as his classics. As long as you don’t expect anything more of it, and as long as you realise exactly what you’re letting yourself in for, you are likely to find this both informative and enjoyable. Even if it’s not your thing, Sir Ian’s performance alone makes it worth a watch.


WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Left to look after a mining facility on the dark side of the moon with only a friendly robot for company, Sam Bell looks forward to the end of his three-year contract and reuniting with his family. However, Sam starts to feel unwell and, after an accident, develops the feeling that he’s not alone. Is it paranoia? And if not, what – or who – is with him?

First of all, a warning: if you’ve not seen Moon and think you might want to, please (in the nicest possible way) go away and come back later. I can’t even allude to the films that it bears comparison to without giving away crucial elements of the plot, and I’d hate to spoil it for you in any way. Okay?

Good. So, this is Moon: in the near-ish future, Lunar Industries have solved the Earth’s energy crisis by collecting helium-3 on the moon and sending it back in regular launches from the Sarang mining base. The only human not to benefit directly is Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the base’s sole employee, just a few weeks away from returning to his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and their young daughter Eve.

A satellite* failure prevents any direct communication with Earth, so – apart from talking to himself and some plants – his only conversation is with sympathetic automaton GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Sam begins to hallucinate, causing him to suffer a terrible accident while he’s out recovering helium-3 from the giant harvesters that roam the moon’s surface; the next thing Sam knows, he’s being looked after by GERTY at the base’s infirmary, though for some reason his robotic assistant doesn’t want him to go outside.

He manufactures a reason to go anyway and discovers a crashed vehicle with what appears to be himself inside. Suddenly, Sarang has two unhappy Sams at each other’s throats and GERTY has a lot of explaining to do. The pair learn to rub along together and delve for answers at the base, facing a race against time to take action before the company’s ‘rescue’ team arrive.

The temptation to fill this review with naff David Bowie puns is almost irresistible, but I’ll try not to, for the one-time Mr Zowie Bowie’s debut feature film owes nothing to his father’s work (though planet Earth is blue, and there’s not much Sam can do). Instead, I’ll start by saying that Moon is a fabulous-looking film. The exterior shots on the moon’s surface, often looking back towards Earth, are convincing and add to an atmosphere of remoteness and melancholy which is enhanced by Clint Mansell’s score

Indoors, there’s a lovely lived-in feeling to the sets: while largely clean, white and featuring the usual futuristic lettering, there’s also clutter: photos, pen markings, post-its and the like. The design is uniformly believable and striking, especially GERTY’s emoticon-like facial expressions which are both charming and emotionally affecting. Also, Sam Rockwell does a superb job of acting on his own (as it were), bringing out all the frustration and alienation of the Sams’ predicament and what turns out to be a tricky domestic situation, as well as physically representing someone who is deeply unwell.

For a while, it looks as though Moon is going to fully exploit the ambiguity of Sam’s situation, the question of how much we can take on trust and how much Sam is creating in his head due to mental illness; however, the film plays out in a decidedly unambiguous fashion, meaning it loses in Fight Club-style intrigue what it gains in its choice of dramatic climax, which isn’t necessarily the greatest trade-off.

The climax of the movie is a slight disappointment and asks more questions about the plot than it answers: if people can go back and forth so easily, surely Lunar Industries would send a team to the moon, to cover illness and prevent exactly the sort of loneliness Sam experiences? Alternatively, couldn’t a company with the technology to make GERTY and the harvesters run the base without any human intervention? Still, you can destroy the magic of many a film by poking at it too much, and in general Moon carries the viewer along on the strength of its atmosphere and strong central performance.

On the other hand, the viewer who watches a lot of space-themed movies might see many things they’ve seen before. In particular, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hangs over the entire film. Jones’ movie apes the look and feel of the central section of 2001, the chief difference being the generally benign presence of GERTY rather than HAL’s cold indifference. Even the scenes where Sam speaks to his daughter appear to be inspired by 2001, and one of the final images echoes Dave Bowman’s journey through the stargate.

Moon’s themes differ from 2001 but are reminiscent of other films such as The Island (which in itself was hardly an original idea) – though the vision of cloning used here reminded me more specifically of The Prestige. I read that Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running was also a big influence, but I will need to see that film (and the original Solaris) to form my own opinion.

While I may be being excessively hard on films that lean on others for visual or thematic inspiration – since that accounts for 99.9 percent of all films made – I should stress that Moon is competently made and very nicely played, Sam Rockwell wringing every nuance out of his character’s complicated personality and the script making him play against himself with humour and style. It’s just that instead of watching Moon again, I’d rather watch everything that influenced it – which either means it does its job brilliantly, or that the movie’s not as memorable in its own right as it might wish.

NOTES: Which is how it’s spelt. Not to come over all schoolma’amish or anything, but I hope someone in the production was severely ticked off for misspelling the word on one of the computer screens.

Ever After

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: The Brothers Grimm have their version of the Cinderella tale put straight by someone who should know, a supposed descendant of the girl herself. They find out that not only did Ella really live, but that her tale is even more magical than their imagination allowed for, the servant girl overcoming impossible barriers to be with her charming prince.

What words come into your head when you hear the name Cinderella? No doubt ‘pumpkin’, ‘mice’ and ‘fairy godmother’ will be among the first in the queue, so it would seem unwise to attempt a version of the story that does away with all three, let alone one which makes the ugly sisters quite attractive and reduces the candidates for the glass slipper down to a field of one. Nonetheless, this is exactly what Andy Tennant’s live-action film does, with results quite different to cartoon or pantomime versions of the tale.

Beginning with the Grimm Brothers being treated to their own ‘Once upon a time’ moment, Ever After takes us back to 16th Century France, where eight-year old Danielle de Barbarac loves playing with her friend Gustave, but loves her father Auguste (Jeroen Krabbe) even more, especially when he brings back books for her to read from his travels. From one trip he also brings back a new wife, haughty Baroness Anjelica Huston and her two daughters, Marguerite and Jacqueline; but their domestic bliss is short-lived, as Auguste dies soon afterwards.

Fast forward ten years and Danielle (Drew Barrymore) is no more than a servant to her step-relatives, and while Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey) is somewhat sympathetic to her plight, being rather put-upon herself, Marguerite (Megan Dodds) has grown up to be at least as arch and disdainful as her mother, who thinks nothing of selling off servants to service her debts.

Meanwhile, Henry (Dougray Scott), heir to the throne of France, has his own issues, and his attempts to escape from the strictures of his parents (played by Timothy West and Judy Parfitt) lead him into several meetings with Danielle, firstly when she lobs an apple at his head as he ‘borrows’ a horse; secondly, when she dresses as a courtier to secure the release of faithful servant Maurice.

Intrigued by the feisty nature of ‘Comtesse Nicole d’Encree’ (Danielle’s mother’s name, to which she has added the title), Henry sets off to woo her, hoping to name her as his bride at a ball set up in the honour of visiting painter/all-round genius Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey), and thereby escape an arranged marriage. Nobody seems to know who the comtesse is, but with the Baroness pushing Marguerite’s charms at every opportunity, more than one person would like to find out. The Baroness does find out, and locks Danielle away – but with friends like Gustave and da Vinci, who needs a fairy godmother? Actually, Danielle might, to convince Henry that posing as a courtier was not a deliberate deceit.

Ditching the wand-waving magic in favour of muddy medieval farming is a risk, and the makers of Ever After present a world where colour is limited to the rich. What they also do, however, is add a load of colour to the story’s personnel, lifting them from being stock pantomimic figures and letting them breathe as individuals; and a lot of credit is due to the cast for the fact that they (mostly) inhabit their roles without resorting to winking thigh-slapping.

To be honest, I wasn’t enamoured of the child Danielle, but Barrymore is both sympathetic and affecting in the role, notwithstanding the fact that she over-emphasises each and every syllable in an attempt to sound English (on a side note, why – if the action takes place in France – do all the servants have rustic English accents?). The chemistry she shares with her colleagues, whether it be undertaking a battle of wits with Scott (also very good), verbally sparring with Huston, or physically sparring with Dodds, is excellent and keeps up our interest. This is just as well, since the pace is gentle at best and some swashbuckling scenes feel cobbled together purely to inject some action into the film.

In fact, apart from Henry and Danielle, much of the film is hit and miss, so whilst the use of da Vinci as the genial, godmother-replacing genius more or less works, the too-hissable and brief-to-the-point-of-redundant appearance of Richard O’Brien as the nasty alternative to the Prince doesn’t, especially as Danielle is more than capable of rescuing herself. Melanie Lynskey’s performance as the ungainly Jacqueline is a definite hit, however, a small role where she is perfectly charming and gently sarcastic (a world away from her debut in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures), and it’s pleasing that she gets her own love interest.

There are plenty of niggling faults to be found in Ever After, and the fact that it’s not a fairytale possibly stops me from overlooking them (one last example: the script deviates uncertainly between classic fairytale language and modernisms such as ‘Have you lost your marbles?’ and ‘Four-minute egg’). That said, the film is handsomely shot in a number of picturesque French chateaux, and the story actually loses nothing by stripping out the fantastical elements. In fact, it retains an enormous amount of charm; and with strong performances by those famous Hollywood names, Barrymore and Huston, Ever After is – happily – a much better film than the sum of its parts.


WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: On the eve of her eighteenth birthday, Rapunzel gazes out of her tower, dreaming of visiting the bright lights of the faraway city. Her mother is full of horror stories about the outside world, but the intervention of charismatic thief Flynn Rider is about to turn all their worlds upside-down. Armed with only a frying pan, a pet chameleon called Pascal and her good nature, Rapunzel embarks on a series of hair-raising adventures, leaving the increasingly interested Flynn in her wake.

Once upon a time…a beautiful blonde baby princess is snatched away from the king and queen by the evil Mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), who has discovered that the girl’s hair can keep her eternally at the same age as long as it remains uncut. Nearly eighteen years later, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) is kept secluded in a tower, free only to hoist her ‘mother’ up with her insanely long hair, and gaze on the royal city which, on her birthday, sends a host of bright lanterns into the sky.

Gothel firmly forbids Rapunzel from leaving the tower so it’s handy that while she’s out, smooth-talking thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) drops by, hiding from fellow rogues the Stabbington twins and dedicated palace horse Maximus. With some less-than-subtle negotiation, Rapunzel persuades Flynn to take her – and chameleon Pascal, of course – to the city in exchange for his swag; though he fully intends to take full advantage of her naïvete, as the trip progresses he starts to see that there’s more to ‘Blondie’ than first meets the eye.

Though it’s probably best to ignore the internal Disney entanglements behind Tangled – it’s CGI but not Pixar, and overseen by John Lasseter – it feels as though many, many strands have been woven together to create the film. The Grimm fairytale is Classic Disney fodder, as are the expressive animal sidekicks, while the generally pleasing Alan Menken tunes recall more recent successes such as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. The script (like so much modern animation) takes its irreverent cues from Shrek, and the whizzo technical stuff that all computer animation has nowadays is suitably impressive, even in 2D: Rapunzel’s hair, whether glowing or merely flowing, is a wondrous thing to behold.

In many respects, this is quite enough to keep Tangled going. Moore’s Rapunzel is a feisty heroine and her dynamic with the not-as-objectionable-as-he-first-appears Flynn/Eugene develops nicely, even if the real stars of the show are clearly Pascal and especially Maximus, the great horse detective. Gothel is a suitably evil (fake) mother, too.

The action is kinetic (if obviously built around the 3D) and the gentler parts work particularly well, most noticeably in three set-pieces: firstly, the very funny I’ve Got a Dream with the reprobates of the Snuggly Duckling tavern; secondly, the uplifting ‘Kingdom Dance’; and shortly after, the magnificent lighting of the lanterns. Like Beauty and the Beast’s rose, the lanterns are more than objects; they are symbols, in this case tens of thousands of symbols of hope that the princess will return to her parents. Even though I know the scene leans heavily on BatB’s famous ballroom scene, and even though the recognition of Rapunzel and Flynn’s love overloads the significance of it all, and even though I see the Light isn’t up there with the best of Menken’s songs, I was moved to tears by the spectacle of it all. Tragic, maybe: but the day I stop having emotional reactions to films is the day I stop watching them forever.

Which isn’t to say I was charmed by everything Tangled had to offer. Because it takes inspiration from lots of other animation, there’s something inorganic and faintly calculated about the way the film is assembled. I wasn’t enamoured with Dan Fogelman’s script, which was evidently tailored for teenagers, or tweenagers, rather than younger children or a universal audience. Not that there’s anything offensive or inappropriate in it, but the plot is classic teenage angst – ‘I totally heart this boy and my mother doesn’t understand’ – and the jokes are mostly of the snippy, smart-talking variety.

There’s also some rather dodgy plot mechanics in evidence, when Gothel and the Stabbingtons have Rapunzel and Flynn at their mercy but let them escape because of some supposed greater plan. What troubled me most, however, was the fact that – for all the incredible (and incredibly expensive) work done on CGI hair, water, lanterns and what have you, the modelling of the human characters is, to my eyes, unattractive. Gothel is, of course, meant to have an evil look about her, but it’s not that; it’s more that she and Rapunzel have disconcertingly large eyes which, instead of adding to the emotion of the characters’ expressions, can become isolated from the rest of the face. Technically amazing though they are, and beautiful though the rest of the film undoubtedly is, its people lack the charm of hand-drawn characters like Snow White or the animals in The Lion King.

Slick, swish and – a few lovely highlights apart – somewhat soulless, Tangled passes a pleasant ninety minutes for adults and children alike without presenting anything new or exciting, unless you’re intrigued by the intricacies of convincingly animating 40 ft of hair. I enjoyed Tangled, some bits very much, but I’m not sure Disney want my abiding memory of their 50th animated feature to be of people with big Beanie Baby eyes – and a funny horse.

The Rock

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: A renegade unit of Marines take hostages on Alcatraz with the aim of gaining justice for their fallen comrades, their demands backed up by stolen VX nerve gas pointed at San Francisco. The only way to prevent an outrage is for chemical expert Stanley Goodspeed to break into the jail, but that seems an impossible task given that no-one has ever broken out. At least, that’s the official story…

Beatle-loving FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) has a stressful afternoon as the bureau’s foremost chemical weapons expert, and his day is made no calmer by his girlfriend Carla’s (Vanessa Marcil) news that she is pregnant, or her subsequent proposal. What could top it all off? Perhaps the news that a group of rogue Marines, led by Brigadier General Hummel (Ed Harris) and his sidekick Major Tom Baxter (David Morse), have taken up residence on Alcatraz with 81 hostages and 14 missiles carrying VX gas – capable of killing tens of thousands of innocent San Franciscans.

Hummel demands $100 million to compensate families of unrecognised colleagues killed in ‘Black Ops’ missions, a ransom FBI chief James Womack (John Spencer) can’t countenance. The only problem is, there’s no way to destroy the VX without killing the hostages, and Alcatraz itself is impregnable. Or so everyone thinks. From a dark, dank cell Womack conjures former British SAS hero John Mason (Sean Connery), a man who uniquely escaped from ‘the rock’ and who has some of America’s biggest secrets stashed away. After a haircut and a hair-raising chase down the streets of San Francisco, John is persuaded to accompany an equally reluctant Stanley on to the island; but when their military protection is ambushed, the former soldier and the green agent face overwhelming odds to disarm the rockets and defeat the General – who himself has to contend with discontent in his ranks.

There are plenty of films that demand careful consideration and close analysis to explain why they work or fail to deliver as they should. Thank heavens, then, for Michael Bay movies. For Bay, any form of complication is a barrier to enjoying the action, and although there’s a smidgen of complexity and conflict amongst the villains – Hummel is a hero who makes an extreme decision for outwardly noble reasons – it’s basically a case of good guys rushing to stop the bad guys.

The set-up allows for action scenes at regular intervals and each of them – Hummel’s appropriation of the missiles, the cable-car ruining mayhem* surrounding Mason’s escape from his hotel room to visit his daughter (Claire Forlani), the entire second half of the movie – is filmed in an exciting, hyperbolic style. It’s not realistic in the slightest, of course, but that’s hardly the point when you’re willing Goodspeed and Mason to disarm the missiles before they’re detonated.

Were The Rock simply a sequence of generic action scenes, it would become tiresome well before its time was through. Luckily, although many of the characters are stock figures, especially those around the table of the emergency committee, the film is leant a good deal of personality by the presence of Connery and Cage. Cage’s Goodspeed is half-geek, half-dude and does a good line in unconvincing assertiveness, while Connery (perhaps for the last time) really enjoys himself in a role which combines wit, suavity, a little bit of acting and even a smidgen of action.

The sly references to spying and British intelligence make Connery the perfect choice for the role – Mason is the Bond left to rot in a foreign jail that Brosnan couldn’t live up to in Die Another Day. Connery, or his stand-in, even gets to do a bit of Thunderball-style sub-aqua work. Harris also does good work, giving Hummel a dignity despite his actions, reflecting a pre-9/11 America where terrorism could be allowed to have a rationale, however misguided.

Another feature of The Rock is that it is prototypic of later Michael Bay films, for good (Armageddon) and bad (Pearl Harbor). There’s the love of flags, military hardware and Armed Forces running in slow motion; there’s the girlfriend fretting in the control room while the guys put their lives on the line. Hans Zimmer’s score is also something of a dry run for his later work on Pirates of the Caribbean.

Also typically, and more problematically, the film won’t be rushed: interesting though it is to see Hummel bidding farewell to his wife, Mason bonding with his long-lost daughter, or Goodspeed being talked (or something like that) into marriage, these sections slow the film down to little effect. We never revisit Forlani, so it seems a bit pointless to introduce her in the first place. During the gaps in the action, you have time to mull over other difficulties, such as the script’s unnecessarily foul mouth and casual attitude towards significant events (Mason stole a film revealing what “really” happened to JFK), or the amateurish design of the VX gas, which looks more like bubble bath than a lethal toxin. Additionally, there are silly contrivances such as the shaft that Connery initially negotiates to get the good guys into Alcatraz, a trial by blade and fire that either belongs in an Indiana Jones-type fantasy or computer games – but as I say, realism isn’t exactly a priority here.

The Rock is at heart a bombastic piece of gung-ho nonsense, but it’s lifted by Connery’s venerable, deadpan turn and Cage’s reluctant hero, and fortuitously comes early enough in Bay’s career for it to be brash but not overwhelmed by noise and special effects. Exciting, and not excessively excessive.

NOTES: Or Bayhem – see the Transformers review, or a million other websites.

Top Secret!

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Visiting East Germany for a cultural festival, hip-swivelling singer Nick Rivers becomes embroiled in the affairs of a kidnapped scientist and his attractive daughter Hillary. While Nick is free to give his love away, Hillary has a long-lost love who becomes found amid the turmoil of the fight against the Fascistic powers that be; but hey, it’s only rock’n’roll!

Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) is a bona fide rock’n’roll sensation, singing and dancing his way into the hearts of teenage girls the world over. He’s invited with manager Martin (Billy J. Mitchell) to East Germany to take part in a festival; what he doesn’t know is that the gig is a sham, a diversion to allow General Streck’s (Jeremy Kemp) forces to ambush the whole fleet of NATO’s subs in the Mediterranean.

Nick’s freedom-lovin’, singin’-and-a-jivin’ ways rub the warmongering Germans up the wrong way and land him in prison, but his meeting with fellow prisoner Dr Paul Flammond (Michael Gough) proves useful when he runs into Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge), the Doctor’s perky-bosomed daughter who has taken on the mantle of Resistance spy since the demise of the unfortunate Cedric (Omar Sharif). Nick and Hillary find romance in each other’s arms and the Resistance in an old farmhouse, though Hillary’s in for a massive shock when she discovers that The Torch (Christopher Villiers), enigmatic leader of a ragbag group of French clichés, is someone she knows intimately from her past*.

Top Secret! provides a perfect example of why teenagers – me as a teenager, anyway – shouldn’t be allowed to review films, because a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old me would have given this movie top marks on the basis of the number of jokes alone. Speaking as a slightly (!) older and more experienced viewer, I can see that it’s not exactly the most cogent of films.

The plot is a complete mess, beginning with something about NATO subs, moving into an Elvis-does-James Bond-vs-the-Nazis spy story before pulling in The Blue Lagoon for a cheap laugh, then varying between the French Resistance (in East Germany!) and material from The Great Escape and Casablanca.

And while you’d think that plotting wouldn’t matter in a film which is all about the jokes, it does, because any sustained amount of comedy has to have a context to work in. Think about Airplane! or The Naked Gun!: both are movies which lark about endlessly, but do so against the strict structure of a straight-laced story – the ridiculousness of any gag is emphasised by the normality of what it’s playing against. The frequently-shifting scenery of Top Secret! (what decade are we in, for a start?) forces the viewer to constantly readjust, and this acts as an impediment to laughter.

Which isn’t to say that Top Secret! isn’t funny, because it very often is: the ballet scene, the Pac-man joke, the rather well-acted bovine action, the underwater fight, even the opening Skeet Surfing gag, are all memorable, as is the very clever if not particularly funny scene featuring Peter Cushing’s backwards bookseller. However, the hit rate is both slower and patchier than the ZAZ team’s best work.

On the plus side, Top Secret! is blessed with a winning central performance. Val Kilmer may not be the most natural comedian (though I really want to see Real Genius again) but here, in his film debut, he absolutely captures the attitude of the insouciant rock star; so while he doesn’t look much like Elvis, his dance moves and voice (yes, it’s Kilmer singing) are both pitch-perfect. It’s arguable that the most enjoyable parts of the movie are actually those where the action stops and Kilmer stops to belt out a tune, especially the tender and amusing Spend This Night With Me.

In other roles, Gutteridge is perfectly passable, though she’s evidently been chosen more for her fetching resemblance to Ingrid Bergman than her acting chops; and Villiers makes The Torch/Nigel a curiously kinky character. However, if the second half of the movie works at all, it’s due to the charm of the rest of the Resistance, the now-questionable jokes about Chocolate Mousse notwithstanding. It’s especially interesting to see Jim Carter as Déjà Vu, given his more recent fame on film and TV.

And that’s about the size of it. Not a film that demands extensive analysis or extreme reverence, Top Secret! is undoubtedly a minor work when compared with the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker classics I’ve already mentioned. On the other hand, it still knocks most 21st Century spoofs into a cocked hat, and if you’ve not seen it before, you should seek it out and give your inner teenager a treat.

NOTES: Can you believe that I didn’t call him an old flame? I must have been feeling very dozy or very pun-averse when I wrote this review.