Tag Archives: 6/20

Hulk

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Accidentally absorbing a massive dose of radiation in a laboratory experiment, Bruce Banner finds that his rage is released his rage in huge, green form. Can he keep a lid on his temper and stay out of the clutches of both the military and the scruffy janitor who appears to know a lot about him?

As I saw this film before Ed Norton’s stab at being The Incredible Hulk, I only had memories of the TV series to compare with Ang Lee’s excursion into the popular and lucrative genre of comic-book adaptation. Thankfully, they no longer have to paint Lou Ferrigno green to portray the green-eyed monster, but is it all change for the good?

In a word: no. The long and the short of it is, not enough happens, and what does happen takes a long time. Although a lot of back story information is imparted in the first ten minutes, detailing the genetic experimentation that David Banner inflicted on himself and passed on to his son Bruce, a quarter of the film has gone by before Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) suffers the irradiation that makes his transformation possible. This is not presented particularly dramatically, and it’s a further ten minutes before the Hulk is fully unleashed. Until then, a plethora of green things and snatched glimpses are all that remind you what the film is supposed to be about.

The scenes filling the gaps between action sequences are unlikely to decrease your impatience, either. There’s a lot of jargon-infested lab talk about molecular science and the introduction of other protagonists: Josh Lucas as Talbot, the blonde, corporate baddie and wild-haired Nick Nolte as the aged David Banner. Also, there’s a massive amount of Jennifer Connelly as Banner’s ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross. Whilst I wouldn’t ordinarily complain about this, Betty is asked to carry the plot forward and, as the civilising influence on the Hulk, bear most of the film’s emotional weight too. Frankly, she is not interesting enough to justify all the screen time, regardless of the fact that she’s also the daughter of the army General at the centre of events, played gruffly by Sam Elliot. I should also mention that crucially, Bana doesn’t do cross all that well: the leading man conveys all the emotional distance that his character is accused of, and Nolte’s overwrought essence-of-King-Lear stylings bring the Australian’s relative blandness into sharp relief.

Although films that are all crash-bang-wallop can easily get tiresome, viewers of comic-book movies have a right to expect a decent action quotient. In Hulk, there are essentially only three action set-pieces: firstly, a fight with the Hulk battling his father’s mutant dogs; secondly, the extended escape from a desert military base ending on the streets of San Francisco; and finally, the climactic fight between the Hulk and his father, now with the ability to absorb materials he comes into contact with, including electricity and water. The first and third of these sequences rely heavily on CGI, and it is a major criticism of the film that whilst the Hulk (and his opponents) look fine in and of themselves, they fail to realistically interact with the real world items around them. The climactic fight is a confusing, almost abstract jumble of images and a less than thrilling experience.

The escape from the army base, whilst being the high point of the film, makes heavy use of another problem with the film. No doubt with the best of intentions, Hulk constantly uses comic strip-style split-screens, pans and wipes; these are not only distracting but serve no purpose whatsoever – how is a shot of a helicopter improved by seeing it from three angles at once? This is a bold move, but it doesn’t work at all. Lee has shown in many other films, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain to name but three, that he has a great eye for period detail and how to film it. Here, an attempt to reflect the source material interferes with the purpose of the film: telling the story.

Then again, he wasn’t given much of a story to work with. Unlike the dynamic and balanced 2008 film, Hulk is unsatisfying, misconceived, with poorly paced plotting and a tedious script, sadly lacking in excitement or humour, except of course for Bana’s glue-on beard in the epilogue. It’s a shame, because there is a ton of potential here: but this Hulk is far from incredible.

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Knocked Up

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: TV producer Alison Scott celebrates promotion to an on-screen role by having a night out with married sister Debbie, and enjoys a drunken one-night stand with stunned stoner Ben Stone. Eight weeks later, Alison is startled to discover she’s pregnant, and horrified to discover just how unprepared a father Ben is. How can he be expected to look after a child when he can barely look after himself?

Alison Scott and Ben Stone (Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen) could hardly inhabit more different worlds: she lives in a nice house with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her family and looks after Ryan Seacrest on E! Television; he lives in semi-squalor with his dope-smoking mates, half-assedly assembling a website which informs users where and when they can find their favourite actresses naked. When Alison gets promoted to a presenting slot, she and Debbie celebrate with a night on the town and – aided by a ton of booze – she picks up Ben, who discards his troublesome condom when push comes to shove.

The next morning, she learns exactly what a slob Ben is and scarpers, only to find out two months later that she is expecting. Alison reluctantly breaks the news to Ben who promises to do right by her, but as she swells – keeping the news from her employers for as long as possible – things do not go well: rather than bonding with Alison, Ben buddies up with Debbie’s henpecked husband Pete (Paul Rudd); and when Pete’s chucked out for secretly doing his own thing, they head off to Vegas to make their own entertainment. With Ben refusing to give up his buds or even his bong, relations are strained wider than Heigl’s stomach; it seems incredibly unlikely that the family Stone is going to be particularly happy.

Apatow’s directorial follow-up to The 40 Year-Old Virgin is a problematic movie in many respects. I’ll come to the other problems later, but here’s the biggie: I don’t buy it. Even allowing for juvenile fantasy scenarios that power stuff like The Girl Next Door, I don’t buy that this scenario would ever happen. That Alison and Ben would hook up in the first place, that Alison would decide to keep the baby, that they would try to make the relationship work, that it would have a chance of lasting more than a few days given how frequently he’s a complete jerk (making his moments of sweetness more unlikely still).

I don’t think the actors believe it either; if it’s not quite at the pitch of Jack Black and Kate Winslet in The Holiday, Rogen and Heigl are incapable of acting as though they’re remotely attracted to each other, past Rogen’s appreciation of Heigl’s physique. I don’t buy that Pete would be kicked out of the house for attending Fantasy baseball meets on the quiet; and I especially don’t buy the hackneyed ending whereby a lifelong pothead can miraculously get himself a job, a home, a sense of responsibility and a can-do attitude just like that.

Climbing over the premise and the unlikely plot contrivances, the next hurdle is that Knocked Up presents a complete mismatch between blokey knockabout and elements of rom-com. Although Steve Carell and Catherine Keener were undoubtedly the glue that held The 40 Year-Old Virgin together, the chemistry evident in Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd’s improvised banter was a big part of that film’s success; here, the pair are thrust together awkwardly and their riffing struggles for context, although shrooming in Vegas will always be pretty funny. Incidentally, the allusion to Swingers is misjudged – thanks for reminding me, Judd, now you mention it I much prefer that movie. Meanwhile, Ben’s stoner friends – Jason Segel, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and Martin Starr – are horribly lazy, most of the jokes coming from Martin growing his hair for a bet and the others teasing him.

As for the rom-com stuff? Well, on this evidence Heigl isn’t suited to romantic comedy, but the bigger problem is that there’s absolutely nothing in the film for female viewers. While Heigl’s high-powered media job instantly makes her unsympathetic, Mann comes across as a harpy; and while the movie’s not nearly as offensive to women as Superbad, Ben is frequently unpleasant to both Alison and Debbie. In fact, both couples bicker for long stretches of the movie, bringing all the fun of The Break-Up to mind (never a good thing). Furthermore, if the bouncer’s admonishment to Debbie is meant to be a satirical take on how men unfairly perceive ‘older’ or pregnant women, it just comes across as nasty.

The next problem is one of empathy. The story thread about Alison finding a doctor she likes is apparently based on Apatow and Mann’s real-life experiences, but the concept of feeling ‘comfortable’ with your doctor is, from a British perspective at least, rather precious and more importantly, not funny. This autobiographical indulgence, together with the appearance of Apatow and Mann’s daughters, only alienates me further from the movie, which – even when described more accurately as a comedy-drama – delivers too few laughs for a two-hour film. Some of the gags are strangely familiar, too: isn’t the sex during pregnancy joke culled right out of Nine Months? And while I’m asking questions, was there really any need to glimpse the anatomical detail of the birth?

If you’re keen to do so, it’s not hard to see a despicable, misogynistic agenda in Knocked Up, a movie that blames nagging, fussy women for getting pregnant, forcing men to grow up and stop having fun in each other’s company. I’m not entirely persuaded by that argument, although Apatow-produced movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Superbad give pause for thought. I’m certainly more likely to be persuaded that Knocked Up is a rotten film than a work of comedy gold, though for the time being I still like Rogen and Rudd enough to glimpse some gold amongst the dross.

Indecent Proposal

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Happily married and very much in love, David and Diana Murphy discover love doesn’t pay the bills when recession hits. The couple head to Las Vegas to gamble their way out of trouble, but when that tactic (predictably!) doesn’t work, high roller John Gage comes up with a startling suggestion: 1 million dollars for a single night of passion with Diana. Although the couple dismiss the idea, it does offer a way out of their financial woes; on the other hand, there’s no guarantee that either of them will be able to cope with the aftermath.

Though high school sweethearts David and Diana Murphy (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore) married young, they appear to be a perfect match: he’s an architect, she sells real estate. David has plans for a dream house and Diana knows where he can build it, but they stretch themselves financially to make the dream real; and when the economy goes bust, they suddenly find themselves $45,000 short in the face of a $50,000 bill.

In desperation, the couple head off to Vegas with their last five grand and David miraculously gets half way towards their target, while Diana eyes up some pretty dresses and billionaire playboy John Gage (Robert Redford) eyes her up in turn. The next day Lady Luck deserts David, leaving them flat broke, though John ‘borrows’ Diana for luck while recklessly placing million-dollar bets. The loan evidently puts an idea in his head, for later that night he puts the titular proposal to David and Diana. They are both mortally offended, naturally, but after a sleepless night Diana agrees to have sex with John for the sake of her and David’s future plans and David’s lawyer friend Jeremy (Oliver Platt) draws up a contract.

Diana’s whisked off to John’s luxury boat, while David frets in the casino. In the following days, the couple discover that John has not only robbed them of their marital security and trust, he’s also bought up their house and land; David is unable to forget the pact he made with the Devil and the pair fall apart, not helped by John’s ruthless pursuit of his wife. As David struggles to get his act together and Diana starts appearing on John’s arm, the relationship appears doomed to end in divorce – and what good is money if the love’s gone?

Indecent Proposal is constructed around a very simple question: What would you do? It’s clearly designed to get moviegoing couples and groups asking each other whether they would be prepared to pimp out their partners, or themselves, for a cool million dollars, and to that end the film answers its own question pretty well. The film doesn’t linger on the act – in fact, a discreet veil’s drawn over John and Diana’s indecency – but instead concentrates on the aftermath of the couple’s decision to let John buy Diana’s body for a few hours.

Harrelson is pretty good as the unhappy cuckold consumed with jealousy at giving his wife to another man, though – this being 1993 – the shadow of Cheers still hangs over him, and to an extent the film follows a believable path as neither David nor Diana can bring themselves to touch the dirty money they ‘won’ in Vegas. The story is told with a ‘near the end’ frame and a helpful (if fitful) narrative from both David and Diana, and there is enough chemistry between the two to make us feel something for their plight, if that’s the right word for their self-inflicted situation. And arching over the whole movie is the larger question of whether everything – sacred vows, trust, love, friendship – can be bought with sufficient cash: does everyone really ‘have their price’?

The problem is, Indecent Proposal is nearly two hours long and the central moral issue can’t sustain itself through the running time. It’s half an hour before John pops the question, during which time we’ve established a link between sex and money in a second glossily-shot sex scene, and had plenty of time to ask why a supposedly bright couple would try to defy the odds by gambling away the little cash they had in Vegas. Then, both during and after the act, the film dawdles along with nothing much to say as it slowly plays out the aftermath of the decision to take Gage’s money, with a number of daft, dragging scenes (John shows Diana round his pad, John – cringingly – invades her citizenship class full of stereotyped immigrants, David starts to reassemble his life by teaching) until it suddenly introduces a hippo motif and, before we know it, Billy Connolly is auctioning off the contents of a zoo!

Although the screenplay lacks focus (we hear ‘Have I ever told you I love you?’ far more than we need to), the film is let down more by a lazy, unmotivated turn from a slightly grizzled and very bored-looking Redford – though, since all he ever seems to say is ‘Let me show you something’, you can hardly blame him. Redford’s Gage is simply a man with a lot of money, the inert catalyst for change in the Murphys’ marriage who is as empty, character-wise, as his massive house, so you feel neither sympathy nor enmity towards him.

Though Demi Moore tries harder than Redford, she is used little better in the key role of Diana. Director Adrian Lyne makes sure she looks fantastic at all times – indeed, the film often has the glossy look of a soft-core feature – but her acting style is strangely cold and forbidding of empathy; in short, she looks far too glamorous to be cash-strapped and desperate, and always seems to know it. Finally, Oliver Platt is amusingly sleazy as the film’s obvious comic relief – Jeremy’s contract, with its “John Garfield” clause, is icky but also funny.

As you can read, I dislike Pretty Woman, but at least Garry Marshall’s film has a brash, colourful 80s warmth and Gere’s billionaire has some history and charm behind his wealth. Indecent Proposal‘s prostitution is of a different kind, a slick, soulless affair in both plot and execution, the torpid involvement of Robert Redford proving a misstep in the venerable actor/director’s career. Still, as the movie suggests, we all have to do things we rather wouldn’t to pay our way in the world.

History of the World: Part I

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Think you know your history? Well prepare to think again, as Mel Brooks presents the story of man, from primitive cavemen to the decadence of the French Revolution, in his own inimitable style.

The ascent of man has been chronicled many times and in many ways, but never quite like this. Starting with a wicked spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey, renowned funster Mel Brooks and friends take us through some of the most notable events in history, narrated in stentorian fashion by Orson Welles. The quirky evolution of Sid Caesar’s Stone Age man is followed by a previously unrecorded episode from the life of an accident-prone Moses (Brooks); we arrive next in Roman Times, where stand-up philosopher Comicus (Brooks again) earns Nero’s (Dom DeLuise) displeasure at Caesar’s Palace and flees Rome with pretty Vestal Virgin Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes) and light-footed slave Josephus (Gregory Hines) in tow.

A brief song-and-dance by the Spanish Inquisition brings us to the French Revolution, where randy King Louis XVI (Brooks yet again) frets over the imminent arrival of Mme Defarge’s (the always wonderful Cloris Leachman) rabble, leaving a doppelganger to see to Pamela Stephenson’s Mlle Rimbaud, willing to do anything – that’s anything – to free her imprisoned father (Spike Milligan).

I don’t know whether it’s truer of comedy than any other artistic endeavour, but it’s certainly true that when comedians are hot, they’re hot and when they’re not, they’re pretty lousy. And it’s alarming how cold Mel Brooks is as writer, director and star of History of the World: Part I. The episodic structure suggests a lack of inspiration, though the term ‘episodic’ really does too much justice to some of the ‘episodes’ since only two sections – Roman Times and The French Revolution – have any sort of story or substance at all.

However, the bittiness of the material isn’t nearly as damaging as the fact that so little of it is funny. The 2001 spoof is juvenile but raises a laugh because it’s so unexpected, but most of the rest is a mixture of the puerile and the overfamiliar. The hard work that goes into creating a set and props for the Fifteen Commandments is paid off weakly, while I get the distinct impression that ‘Roman Times’ was inspired by the critical and financial success of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Unfortunately, the inspiration doesn’t make it as far as the writing, with the result that the director, DeLuise, Madeleine Kahn (as Empress Nympho) and so on are forced into slapstick and manic gurning to raise laughs, while Brooks recycles material from Las Vegas cabaret and Carry on Cleo (the Vestal Virgins played by Playboy Bunnies) and still struggles for giggles, hindered as he is by Hines’ unexciting turn (he’s no Cleavon Little) and the overwhelming blandness of Humes’ attractive but boring Miriam.

Airplane!-style literalisms fall flat (‘The streets are crawling with soldiers’), and although I’d never call Brooks racist or homophobic, he panders to lazy stereotypes throughout – he’s never been averse to using dolly birds as set dressing, of course, so it would be redundant to complain about sexism.

The remainder of the film is afflicted with the same issues, exacerbated by a sense that Brooks is raiding his own back catalogue for ideas. I don’t think there’s a direct Python influence in the Spanish Inquisition sketch, but the idea of a soft-shuffling musical number making light of an episode of persecution of Jews might just ring a bell with fans of The Producers, augmented here by nuns paying tribute to Esther Williams. Similarly, the French Revolution brings us Harvey Korman as a constantly mispronounced Count de Monet and Andreas Voutsinas as his ‘saucy’ friend Bearnaise, ripping off Blazing Saddles and The Producers in one fell swoop.

As a result, and because the plot is a fairly lame excuse to engage Stephenson and others in bosom-heaving and bodice-ripping, the attention wanders into spotting familiar British faces and figures: Cleo Rocos, Bella Emberg, Nigel Hawthorne, Andrew Sachs and so on. In fact, the cameos are generally more interesting than the jokes, so you might also spot Hugh Hefner, Jackie Mason, Bea Arthur – and John Hurt as Jesus. To be totally fair, the Last Supper skit is pretty good, but it’s one of very few moments of quality and originality. Brooks’ comedies are often extremely broad and all the better for it; here, however, you’re left wishing you were watching the infinitely more substantial films in which the jokes first appeared.

Like so many things in life, the first thing that came to mind immediately after watching History of the World: Part I was an episode of The Simpsons. I’m thinking of the one in which Bart briefly becomes a comedy sensation with the catchphrase ‘I didn’t do it!’ and ends up repeating his shtick to a jaded and unappreciative audience. I’m afraid Brooks’ shtick comes unshtuck in much the same fashion in this lazy and only fitfully funny compendium. I don’t know if Part II – trailed at the end of this movie – was ever going to be made, but I’m not in the least bit sad that it didn’t come to fruition, even if Jews in Space was to prove prophetic for Mel’s next project.

Bean

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Bumbling gallery caretaker Mr Bean is dispatched to America to oversee the arrival of the priceless ‘Whistler’s Mother’ in Los Angeles. Curator David Langley eagerly awaits the masterpiece and an ultra-sophisticated art expert. What he actually invites into his home is a clumsy oaf who causes havoc wherever he goes, threatening to ruin David’s personal and professional lives.

The board of Britain’s Royal National Gallery can’t wait to fire their worst employee, dozy perpetual latecomer Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson). However, they’ve reckoned without the support of John Mills’ sympathetic chairman, who demands that he’s kept on. The board’s alternative plan is to get rid of Bean by packing him off to America, where the Grierson Art Gallery have just bought Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, or simply “Whistler’s Mother”, from the Musée D’Orsay. As far as Grierson’s highly-strung curator David (Peter MacNicol) is aware, Bean is a visiting doctor who will give a learned presentation about the painting at its official unveiling – that is, until he meets him.

At the gallery, Bean appears more interested in his trousers and taking holiday snaps than in meeting owner George Grierson (Harris Yulin) or any of the art on display, but worse is to come: firstly, Bean causes constant havoc at the Langley family’s home, causing David’s wife Alison (Pamela Reed) to fume, then move out altogether with kids Kevin and Jennifer (Andrew Lawrence and Tricia Vessey); then, mere seconds after the painting arrives in the US, Bean contrives to wipe Mrs Whistler’s face clean off the canvas. Catastrophe looms for David, but he hasn’t accounted for the unconventional Englishman’s lunatic resourcefulness.

Because I’m nice, I’ll start with what’s good about Bean. Err…well, if you like Rowan Atkinson’s physical brand of gormless gurning, there’s plenty of it in the movie. He wreaks endless mayhem in airports, on (incongruous) theme park rides, in the kitchen, the bathroom, the gallery, the hospital (of which more later), pulling the whole gamut of bizarre faces as he goes. The odd, smart Richard Curtis touch occasionally threatens to seep out (the merchandising of Whistler’s mother is abominable, yet believable), but then again so do utterly crass gags (no doubt by Curtis too) – laxatives, Bean suffering suspicious wet trousers which are dried via an unspeakable-looking interaction with a hot-air drier.

Bean is essentially a one-man show that doesn’t readily become a double act; but as far as it goes, the unlikely partnership David and Bean strike up works quite well and MacNicol does as well as can be hoped for in the circumstances – a shower scene raises a decent chuckle. But in general, the film pushes at the limits of what Mr Bean can reasonably do – he’s enough of a fish out of water on his own doorstep, so his transplantation to America seems like an unnecessary step. Moreover, by abandoning his trademark silence to give speeches Bean loses his Unique Selling Point, moving from Tati-like ingenuity to Pee Wee Hermanesque oddity.

However, if the character of Bean feels awkward on the big screen, it’s as nothing compared to the awkwardness of the plot. It’s creaky, contrived and raises a heap of questions: why, in a transaction between French and American museums, is there any need for a British gallery to be involved? Why on Earth would David invite a complete stranger into the family home? Above all, why did anyone think it would be a good idea to tack on a second, high-drama climax of Jennifer falling off a motorbike and Bean being mistaken for another sort of doctor? Bean extracting a bullet from Richard Gant’s bolshy Lt. Brutus is daft enough, but his revival of Jennifer by firstly straddling, then landing on top of her, borders on being tasteless.

I can understand why the scenes were written, to heighten the emotions, to make Bean even more of a hero, and (mostly?) to bump up the running time, but the shift in tone is entirely out of place; and since Jennifer is clearly unscathed in the following scenes, I suspect the whole section was put in as a late, if not after-, thought.

Besides, Bean could have been the best-plotted comedy in the world, could have had music that was sympathetic and apt rather than overbearing, loud and featuring lousy covers of classic pop (Stuck in the Middle With You and Yesterday), and could have used Burt Reynolds brilliantly instead of stuffing him into an utterly pointless cameo as the gallery’s sponsor, General Newman; and I would still have taken against it.

Why? M and bloody Ms. The pervasiveness of the product placement is distracting, from the first appearance of the sweets during Bean’s plane journey to the one that Bean fishes around for when he finds Brutus’ bullet (oh yes, they’re used in the plot too); but the worst offender is the vast mound of sweets that takes pride of place in the Langley home. I can understand why the film would want to send its hero to America, where the largest film market is; but if you’re so desperate to sell ‘candy’, why not just show an advert before the film? (And yes, I know there’s a Mr Bean advert for M&Ms).

Still, at the end of the day I realise that (for whatever reason) there are big fans of Mr Bean out there, and for those fans the product placement and the terrible plot are but minor considerations: Bean contains lots of Bean, and is therefore all gravy. I laughed a couple of times, and felt for little David as he struggled with his monstrous man-child of a house-guest. And at least Mel Smith’s film had a go at telling a story, unlike the entirely execrable Mr Bean’s Holiday.

Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Lonely ginger English orphan Benjamin Sniddlegrass wins a place at the Fairport Academy for wits and wittettes, presided over by visiting headmaster, eccentric Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog. Sniddlegrass gets to indulge his love of skiffle and also finds love with older student Scarlett McKenna, but visions of mortal enemy Lord Emmerich begin to invade his dreams. What do they mean? And why are there penguins in them?

It may well be the strangest raison d’être of a film in movie history. Film critic Mark Kermode, in reviewing Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, derides Harry Potter wannabes and says – in an entirely throwaway remark – that you might as well make a film called ‘Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins’. On the other side of the world, Australian Jeremy Dylan takes him at his word and with a gang of friends, and almost no money whatsoever, turns a sarky joke into a feature film packed with wittertaining references.

As narrator Stephen Fry briefly explains in an uncannily familiar set-up, Benjamin Sniddlegrass (Andrew Griscti) lives in the bathroom of his unpleasant Aunt David Morrissey. One day, he’s magically transported from Cockfosters to Sydney, where the mysterious Pentangle (Alec Doomadgee) explains that he’s a ‘wit’, a wizard selected for training at the famous Fairport Academy. Benjamin is an unwitting (sorry) celebrity at the school, since his parents were killed battling the evil Lord Emmerich, also presumed dead; but he has more immediate matters to address, such as a burgeoning friendship with bright-eyed third-year student Scarlett McKenna (Catherine Davies) and a chance to watch long-dead music heroes, specifically skiffle king Johnny Leroy (Jon Sewell).

However, events take a surreal turn when Emmerich – and penguins – start appearing in Benjamin’s dreams, forcing the student to seek assistance and a less-than-magical ‘potion’ to keep him awake, provided by the school’s exchange headmaster, Werner Herzog (Dorian Newstead).

It would be condescending to judge BSATCOP by different standards to any other film, and in a totally objective light you’d have to say it’s not brilliant. The reason for this is almost entirely attributable to the fact that it’s as cheap as – let’s follow the form – nuts, and looks it. I can’t be bothered to count exactly how much of the movie is actual footage and how much is titles or scenes played through a different filter, but to make the film last more than an hour Dylan replays scenes until they become over-familiar, interspersed with what amount to Powerpoint graphics (I think we get four sets of titles, in all).

The film displays all the hallmarks of student film-making, using real locations and making do with what’s available: entirely understandable, but (for example) was there really no better alternative to a grungy student bar for Emmerich’s lair? The plot too is at the mercy of the ultra-low budget (£6,000, roughly), which allows only the most cursory parody of the Harry Potter movies – we’re talking very low-grade magic – and no set-pieces to speak of (unless you count rescue from a pool table as an action set-piece).

That said, Benjamin Sniddlegrass does – just about – manage to tell a story, and has fun while it’s doing it. The acting from the leads is pretty decent for a student film, and there’s something approaching chemistry between Griscti and Davies, bolstered by a saucy streak that has nothing to do with J.K. Rowling’s work (the banter while playing pool is pure smut, in a good way); the Maurice Binder-like titles are also surprisingly effective, accompanying the bombastic theme song (the music in general is good, depending on your tolerance for skiffle). Dylan makes a virtue of the film’s cheapness, and while it never reaches great heights of excitement, I didn’t have time to get bored either. I enjoyed individual jokes, like the Wicker Basket of Times Past, very much.

The question I haven’t answered so far is ‘Do you have to know the context of the film’s genesis to appreciate it?’, and my answer is ‘I don’t know’. I am a regular podcaster of Drs Mayo and Kermode film review show on Radio 5 Live, and as such did enjoy the little references to the show’s in-jokes and memes – even if no-one directly says hello to Jason Isaacs. However, apart from knowing where the title came from and who Werner Herzog is, I don’t think it does matter much if you’re aware of the film’s background. Anyway, let’s face it, if you’re not a fan of the good doctor (and the fake one), your chances of stumbling on this movie by mistake are pretty slim.

Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins is a brave, not to say lunatic, attempt at making a mountain out of a molehill; and while it would have obviously been a better film with another 20,000 or so dollars thrown at it, it contains enough good material to be perfectly watchable. Personally, I think the film shows some talent – Peter Jackson started off mega-cheap, and look where he ended up.

I’d quite like to see the proposed follow-up, Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Death of Narrative Cinema, and would be perfectly happy – if you’re reading, Jeremy, and the title wasn’t just a joke – to support it getting made. If the director is reading*, he shouldn’t be despondent about the score: it’s an honest rating and puts BSATCOP way ahead of a lot of much more expensive movies. Minute for minute, and balancing assets against flaws, I genuinely thought the film was on a par with Ang Lee’s The Hulk, Eagle Eye and The Da Vinci Code. And it’s a lot better than that particular favourite of Dr K’s, Angels and Demons.

NOTES: When this review was posted on my original website, Mr Jeremy Dylan kindly sent me an email in which he was very honest about the qualities of his debut feature. This makes him unique amongst directors whose films I’ve reviewed – yeah, Scorsese, where’s your email? – and makes me like him all the more. Go to http://mrjeremydylan.com/ to find out what he’s currently up to Down Under.

Mr and Mrs Smith

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: John and Jane Smith share a house and a five (or six) year marriage, but not the true nature of their day jobs: they are both assassins, for rival agencies. When they are assigned the same hit, their secret lives are uncovered and their marriage becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.

There are certain types of film that will always get the benefit of the doubt, round these parts anyway: low-budget projects, movies by new, young filmmakers or those featuring up-and-coming actors, for example. You look over rough edges and the odd naff scene because you can see enthusiasm for the art, a desire to succeed, in every frame.

Mr and Mrs Smith is clearly not one of those films, combining as it does A-list stars, a major studio, a hot director and a high-concept idea. Gorgeous Angelina Jolie, handsome Brad Pitt, The Bourne Identity’s Doug Liman and a shedload of guns: It’s sexy, that’s what that is! Like Grosse Pointe Blank but with incredibly beautiful people, like True Lies only they’re both at it! Sexy sexy sexy!

Except it’s not, not at all. And the reason why is that high concept: ‘married assassins oblivious to each others’ jobs’ sounds great as a seven word pitch, but try writing a well-plotted script around it and everything falls apart. The film starts with John and Jane Smith’s marriage in trouble, and as they head out separately for the evening we are meant to be thinking of infidelity; but we already know they are killers, if not from the massive publicity that brought us to the film in the first place, then from the early flashback to Colombia where they initially meet.

Five (or six – and doesn’t that joke get old quickly?) years later, Pitt’s first hit is in an Irish bar. We don’t know why he’s doing it, but he has to kill a man called Lucky, and he does it by charming his way into a poker game with Lucky’s henchmen, one of whom has the most despicable Irish accent you have ever heard. The hit complete, he returns home to Jolie who has just completed a murder in fetish gear. She asks where he’s been and explains he’s been to a Sports bar where he ‘got lucky.’ Ba-dum-tish!

This is the quality of joke throughout. Clearly the film is pitched as an action romp rather than a black comedy, and as such belly laughs are hardly to be expected; but the gags are lame when they come, so Liman relies on Brad Pitt’s fame and rugged charm to impress. It even gets as low as one character sporting a Fight Club T-shirt. See what we’ve done? Knowing, eh?! Oh, fff…for God’s sake, go away.

Laziness seeps out everywhere. Jane Smith says she was an orphan and that the man who gave him away at the wedding was a paid actor. Has her ‘family’ never been referred to or spoken about subsequently, let alone been paid a visit? You can’t imagine the deceit lasting five (or…whatever) days, let alone years. Over-analysis maybe, but symptomatic of a film that is so busy being cool that it completely sacrifices coherence. Lots of gadgetry, loads of busy, buzzy music, but very little sense.

The real problem, however, isn’t sloppiness. Once the Smiths’ secrets are out, their first instincts are to kill each other – well, Jane mostly wants to kill John, cries when she thinks she might have actually done it, then finding she hasn’t, wants to kill him again. On screen this really isn’t much fun, partially because you don’t know who to support (unlike Bourne, one isn’t the hero and the other the villain); but mostly because watching a couple trying to murder one another is rather unsettling.

Even if you enjoy shotguns blasting holes in the walls, and fridges being riddled with machine-gun fire, to the funky accompaniment of Express Yourself, watching a man punching and kicking a woman to pieces is simply unpleasant. It’s not funny, it’s not dramatic, it’s just nasty; and the fact that it gets them all revved up for sex is just insulting.

It comes as little surprise that, post sex, the Smiths team up against the world in a fight for survival, and no surprise at all that this fight features gargantuan explosions, car chases and the shooting of dozens of black-clad, armed-but-useless agents. There is next to no explanation of who these agents are, who they work for, or why they need Mr & Mrs S dead. Or why, following the big climactic scene, everything is perfectly safe again.

And then you have Vince Vaughn’s Eddie, one of the few supporting characters with human characteristics, in so much as Vaughn bothers to project them. In Liman’s Swingers, Vaughn was new and his arrogance was fresh and funny, but time and again since he has displayed the antithesis of range, reprising the same “eye for the ladies” shtick in every role and only confirming that sleaze does not become more appealing with age. You could argue that the role of Eddie requires nothing of Vaughn: he delivers that, and less.

Okay, so I didn’t like the film much, but will make one concession: there is decent chemistry between the leads, which for a while, at least, served them well in ‘real’ life, such as theirs was; and if you like pretty people, showy gunplay, stylish violence, technically proficient explosions and the like, you may be able to stare at this film and gawp. Just don’t try to do anything more than rub its shiny surface; you’re likely to put your finger through and discover that, on the inside, it’s completely empty.