Tag Archives: 7/20

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Compromised subway dispatcher Walter Garber’s lousy day gets much worse when a train is hijacked by a ruthless robber calling himself Ryder and demanding $10 million in the space of an hour, or his hostages will start to die. With the assistance of negotiators and New York’s Mayor, Walter manages to get Ryder what he needs with the minimum of bloodshed; but when Walter is told to deliver the cash himself, the Average Joe needs to display extraordinary courage.

The phrase ‘you know you’re getting old when…’ can be completed in countless different ways, not least ‘you know you’re getting old when you start beginning sentences with “you know you’re getting old”.’ You certainly know you’re getting on a bit when some films start to look as though you’ve seen them before, just in a slightly different order; which is true of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, notwithstanding the fact that I completed this review before seeing the 1974 original.

Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is a dispatcher for the New York subway system, disturbed that train 123 has stopped where it should not have stopped and extremely disturbed when he discovers why: the train has been taken over by a violent, sweary and unpredictable hijacker called ‘Ryder’ (John Travolta) and his gang of hijackers for hire. Ryder demands $10 million be delivered to him within the hour, and a hostage – the carriage contains, amongst others, a mother and child, a former paratrooper and a young kid called George (Alex Kaluzhsky) whose interrupted webcam session with the girlfriend offers live pictures to TV news – will be shot for every minute the authorities are late.

Naturally, Garber gets the experts in, including hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) and the about-to-retire Mayor (James Gandolfini); but Ryder warms to Garber and insists on only dealing with him. As the pair get to know each other, the reason for Garber’s relatively low-status job emerges (he took a bung to recommend new Japanese trains) and the police learn enough about Ryder to put a real name to his face, that of an investment banker recently out of jail with more than the ransom money on his mind. But the clock is ticking, and when a crash delays the arrival of the cash Ryder reveals just how ruthless he is; suddenly Garber is thrust into a situation where he has to hand over the money personally, and a breathless climax sees him chasing the robbers through long-disused parts of the subway whilst the train speeds inexorably towards a terrible crash in Coney Island.

I’m not dissatisfied with Pelham 1 2 3 because it’s a heist movie, you understand: heist movies offering something new still crop up from time to time, such as Heat, Inside Man or the flawed but feisty Swordfish. The problem with this specific heist movie is that it is so thoroughly reminiscent of those films you’re tempted to think it has been pasted together from outtakes. Washington’s Garber – the essentially decent man with a blot on his reputation – is no different to his characters in either Inside Man or Out of Time: and because of this you never really believe Denzel is the ordinary guy caught up by events, despite the domestic niceties with the wife (they’ll never use a whole gallon of milk, even a US one!).

Ryder, meanwhile, sees Travolta reprising Gabriel from Swordfish but with a raised voice and a different haircut and beard: are we meant to think of him as less of a bad guy just because he was in Grease once? Given that Turturro and Gandolfini are merely good actors lending weight to cookie-cutter parts and neither Garber’s wife nor Ryder’s accomplices are given any sort of character or plot interest, it’s little wonder that my eyelids started to droop during both attempts to watch the film. Even the hostages – the usual assortment of ages, races, sexes etc. – are bland, with the unnamed child used as the obvious point of tension (nobody in their right mind should give a stuff about George and his sordid little webcam romance).

Tony Scott’s ploy to prevent the viewer from nodding off is to introduce action at every available opportunity, not only via Ryder’s arbitrary countdowns which trigger bouts of well-staged but often completely gratuitous stunt work, but by slowing down or speeding up the film to jolt us out of our comfort zones. Look, it’s not merely a subway train, it’s the subway train OF DOOM! That’s no ordinary police helicopter, it’s the helicopter OF HOPE! And people don’t merely get shot: they get very, very shot. Scott’s kinetic style doesn’t make the film difficult to watch, but the approach already seems dated and it adds little to the atmosphere. Neither does the all-pervasive use of explicit language, which quickly gets boring since it’s inserted into the script for use by all characters equally and therefore serves no purpose other than to make younger viewers giggle.

On top of all that, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 tries to take advantage of the vaguely zeitgeisty notion of Ryder being a Wall St trader gone bad, or since he was already bad, superbad. However, this is patently daft. Even if you swallow the proposal that a share of $10 million might not last you the rest of your life, the 9/11-referring conceit that a hijacked train which doesn’t even stop the rest of the subway trains in New York could nonetheless send Wall Street down ten percent and gold shares* up several thousand percent is clearly idiotic.

I can only assume that the identikit feel of Pelham 1 2 3 is a roundabout tribute to the excellence and influence of the original; which only makes the question of why this re-make was considered a good idea all the more pertinent. Tony Scott did some good work – amongst the dross – but this film really makes me wish he’d stuck to pulp movies like True Romance where he put his talents to use on much fresher material. This isn’t awful, but the whole Denzel vs Travolta thing is just…getting old.

NOTES: For the majority of the film Ryder tracks ‘Gold’ prices whereas the computer he checks at the end refers to ‘Gold Shares Activity.’ If he had been lucky enough to buy very, very cheap shares in a gold mining company before he went to jail, the figures might – just – come near to stacking up. But the film can’t be bothered to explain itself, since it’s too busy crashing vehicles into each other.

Men in Black II

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: A vicious alien, searching for the precious Light of Zartha, takes the form of a model and begins to lay waste to New York’s extra-terrestrial community. It’s down to the Men In Black to stop her, but Agent ‘J’ isn’t equipped to take on the task alone. Unfortunately for J, his legendary ex-colleague ‘K’ isn’t equipped either, since as far as he’s concerned he’s just a scarily efficient postal worker.

The Earth’s in peril again, this time from an alien called Serleena whose glamorous shell (Lara Flynn Boyle, wearing little more than a bra and pants) hides her true snake-like form and ruthless nature. She hooks up with her moronic two-headed cohort Scrad (Johnny Knoxville) and goes in search of the Light of Zartha, a precious entity that may or may not have left the planet twenty-five years previously.

Meanwhile, James Edwards (Will Smith), or simply ‘J’, already has his hands full keeping control of New York’s alien population, and his feelings of loneliness are not helped much by his low-watt partner T, who becomes the latest in a long line of ‘neuralyzed’ rejects. While Frank the talking pug isn’t much of an improvement, he does assist in the investigation of a mysterious killing in a pizza parlour witnessed by pretty waitress Laura (Rosario Dawson).

What J really needs is old friend and partner K (Tommy Lee Jones), since he’s the only man who knows what happened to the Light of Zartha; but he was neuralyzed some time ago and is now living a peaceful existence in the back of beyond as plain old Kevin Brown. J tries to revive K’s memories by showing him the alien life all around him, but before they can use Men In Black’s deneuralyzer to do the job properly, Serleena attacks the building, forcing them to seek help from old friends such as Tony Shalhoub’s Jeebs, the pawn shop owner constantly prone to (literally) losing his head.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that sequels, even really good ones such as Toy Story 2, are prone to repeating the plots of their originals. While there are elements of this in Men In Black II – J re-introducing K to the agency is a mirror image of the first film – it doesn’t feel like a re-run so much as a film consciously constructed around what audiences liked from Men In Black: Jeebs, Frank, the chopsy worms with whom Laura stays, the comically-sized weaponry, Rip Torn’s Z, but not Linda Fiorentino’s L whose absence is explained in a single sentence.

And thankfully, the sequel makes good use of Smith and Jones, even if their roles are reversed: J now the hard-ass expert, still wise-cracking, and K the initiate, still deadpanning magnificently no matter what’s thrown at him. Their chemistry helps us overlook the fact that the ‘Light of Zartha’ is a complete MacGuffin which sends us all around the houses when – if K knows as much as he seems to – most of the action sequences don’t need to happen at all (but where’s the fun in that?).

In this instance, then, familiarity doesn’t breed too much contempt; it’s rather nice to see the characters, creatures and cool gadgets again. However, Men In Black II has a more immediate problem in that its two story strands don’t marry up very well. Because Jones is such good, grumpy fun, the film instinctively wants to concentrate on K and the loss and subsequent retrieval of his memory. Fair enough, but the film only runs at 88 minutes, meaning that Serleena’s invasion, good though Boyle is, is a little overlooked; and J’s love interest, for the second film running, is undercooked. As a result, when the climax comes, it’s really nothing to get very excited about.

Moreover, the film’s individual components are often more miss than hit. For example, some of the CGI (while great for the time, no doubt) now looks fake, over-complicated for its own sake, and poorly integrated with what’s real. Scrad and his ancillary second head are both equally annoying, while I was also non-plussed by Serleena’s other crony, John Alexander’s strange, modular Jarra. And while there are some nice jokes, including a bit of sharp race-related riffing, there are at least as many that don’t hit the mark: Michael Jackson’s naff cameo, the ‘ballchinians’, the Playstation controller that steers the flying vehicle, which not only recycles the first film’s ‘falling about in the car’ gag but also borrows another one from Airplane!. That said, a couple of the novelties did work well: I liked Peter Graves’ introductory (and very cheap) re-enactment of the Zarthons visit to Earth, and the creatures who inhabit a Grand Central Terminal locker and worship K are awfully cute.

Men in Black II is by no means a horrendous failure, but neither is it as much fun as the original Men In Black, and watching it gives me even less hope that the (as yet unseen) third instalment will contain a load of fresh ideas. It’s entirely passable – and if that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, good, because that’s exactly what I meant to do.

End of Days

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: As the Millennium approaches, the Devil walks tall in New York, searching for a mate chosen by her birthmark twenty years before. As The Vatican quibble over whether to protect or kill Christine, it falls to unhappy security guard Jericho to look after the vulnerable young woman. Given that they are both mentally fragile, and their enemies are both numerous and powerful, how can they possibly prevent the next thousand years belonging to the forces of darkness?

I’m sure it’s no commentary on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting prowess that his most successful role (by far) has been that of an emotionless killing machine. Indeed, being a muscle-bound beefcake with a thick accent should be no barrier to displaying a full emotional range: just look at Stallone in Copland. Well, maybe that’s not such a great example, but in theory it can only be a good thing that the Governator gets to stretch his thespian talents.

End of Days begins in 1979 with the birth of a baby girl called Christine. She bears a birthmark which confirms her as the devil’s mate at the time of the new millennium and is anointed by satanic nurse Lily (Miriam Margolyes), who later becomes the girl’s stepmother. Meanwhile, signs of the devil’s arrival are noted at the Vatican and whilst the pope trusts in God and orders that no harm comes to Christine, others favour a more direct, deadly solution.

Fast forward twenty years and the devil duly arrives in New York, inhabiting the body of banker Gabriel Byrne in order to find and impregnate Christine, thereby securing a thousand years of Hell on Earth. Christine (Robin Tunney) has grown up suffering visions of Byrne’s rampant horniness, and as New Year’s Eve approaches her life gets a whole lot weirder.

And Mr S? Schwarzenegger is Jericho, a suicidal security guard not coping with the violent death of his wife and daughter to the extent that he’s about to shoot himself in the head when his buddy Bobby (Kevin Pollak) comes to collect him for a job protecting – as chance would have it – ‘The Man’ (Byrne). After a seemingly mad priest (Thomas Aquinas!) takes a pot shot at Byrne, Jericho’s mind is taken off his troubles by pursuing the cleric, and then following clues left at his squalid abode that lead Jericho to a meeting with Christine.

As the countdown to New Year continues, Jericho becomes Christine’s protector against those who want to procreate with her against her will and those who would kill her to prevent the apocalypse coming about. The hardest part is finding someone to trust, since Father Kovak (Rod Steiger) at the local church can only offer a modicum of protection and Jericho’s associates are acting very strangely. Jericho refuses a Faustian pact to have his old life back in exchange for divulging Christine’s hiding place, but defeating the Prince of Darkness involves more than a renewal of faith: it also requires some bloody big bullets.

There are a number of genuinely half-decent ideas in End of Days. The problem is, they’ve all had at least one previous outing on the silver screen already. Most obviously the film takes its near-contemporary The Devil’s Advocate as its horror-lite inspiration, though naturally there are liberal sprinklings from The Omen and The Exorcist, and Gabriel Byrne (very much Pacino-lite throughout) lends Steiger the famous quote from The Usual Suspects.

The whole thing comes across as a hotchpotch of better films’ ideas, with an orientation towards action rather than story as you might expect given Schwarzenegger’s comfort zone. Unfortunately, with all the guns, fighting, massive explosions and so on Tunney’s Christine is almost entirely lost; she’s pretty, but barely makes any impact amidst the ‘Arnie vs the Devil’ ballyhoo. Also, there’s considerable friction between the more ambitious plot elements and the dumb action stuff, resulting in a number of awkward scenes – not least the unintentionally hilarious sight of Arnie beating up Miriam Margolyes (or, hopefully, a short, stocky stuntman).

The other issue lies with Schwarzenegger. Whilst he’s running, punching and toting guns, his Jericho is a believable enough character (though as a concession to age, much of the stunt work is done by others). Unfortunately, he is tasked to pile various other emotions on top of his willingness to chase, shoot and fight, such as being depressed, suffering a crisis of faith or being amazed by supernatural events.

In particular, the scene where the Devil tempts Jericho with the illusion of having his wife and family back tests the acting chops of both. Byrne by no means distinguishes himself, but Schwarzenegger is all at sea. As usual, Arnie exhibits some muscle-bound charisma, but it’s telling that in the final analysis the film gives up any pretence of cleverness and pits him (plus the world’s biggest bullets) against a computer-generated devil-insect-monster from hell. This is, I realise, exactly the sort of climax action fans will be looking for, and why not; but I think the film’s religious ramblings and the sight of the last action hero moping will have turned many of them off long before the film switches fully into Predator mode.

In some respects it’s cruel to critique a film as knowingly dumb, as deliberately shallow and as blatantly derivative as End of Days: but these things have to be done. It’s too dark and patchy for an action film, not filled with remotely enough shock and gore to be a bona fide horror, and as a meditation on faith in the late 20th/early 21st Centuries – well, you’re having a laugh. Actually, that is the film’s saving grace: for whilst it is all kinds of rubbish, for better or worse you won’t be able to watch End of Days with a straight face.

Taxi

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Bungling Marseilles cop Émilien is charged with catching an arrogant group of Mercedes-driving German bank robbers. Just one catch: he’s probably the worst driver in France. So when he nabs wannabe racing driver Daniel for travelling around the city at ludicrous speeds, a pact is born; Daniel gets to keep his licence if, and only if, he helps Émilien to grab the bad guys. The uneasy partnership delights Émilien’s suffocating mother, though Daniel’s new girlfriend Lilly believes he should be driving her wild with passion, rather than escorting an idiot round the streets.

You can’t watch everything as a reviewer, though quite why I’ve managed to catch Road House 2 in the last year, but not The Seven Samurai, remains something of a mystery. However, I think it’s always useful to follow up a film of one kind with something as different as possible, to keep a perspective on the whole wide world of movies. So, following on from my recent reviews of Inception, featuring Marion Cotillard, and Taxi Driver, in a six degrees of separation-stylee I was driven to dig out the Luc Besson-written and produced Taxi.

Daniel Morales (Samy Naceri) is a legend in Marseilles’ pizza-delivering community, so much so that when he leaves he’s treated to a parade from his colleagues and finally gets together with the lovely Lilly (Cotillard). Well, almost; he’s so desperate to become a taxi driver that he leaves her unsatisfied to fill out the forms. Daniel soon becomes notorious on the streets of Marseilles, since his super souped-up white Peugeot allows him to get passengers to their destinations at incredibly high speeds. He also earns the admiration of passenger Camille (Manuela Gourary), but his meeting with her son Émilien (Frédéric Diefenthal) is less happy; for Émilien is a cop and not at all impressed by Daniel’s recklessness during a particularly bumpy ride home.

Émilien threatens to take Daniel’s licence, but soon hits on a better idea: since he is such a rotten driver, he can use Daniel to help catch some pesky German bank robbers, a group of chleux so arrogant in their methods and their Mercedes getaway cars that they advertise where they’re going to strike next. The pair strike up a strange partnership, with Daniel getting the maladroit Émilien out of scrapes and cooking up a trap for the foreigners, whilst the diminutive gendarme can only set fire to his mother’s house and completely fail to impress either his statuesque blonde colleague Petra (Emma Sjoberg) or his rabidly xenophobic boss.

I was originally going to say that French Comedies aren’t funny, but that’s clearly not only an absurd generalisation but also patently untrue. What can more accurately be said is that whilst there are some very good French comedies, the humour rarely comes across well to Anglophone audiences, which is why films with decent concepts – La Cage Aux Folles, Trois Hommes et un Couffin – are most often remade, though the most successful French comedy Les Visiteurs was a terrible flop when it became Just Visiting.

Anyway, the point here is that whilst there are good French comedies, Taxi certainly isn’t one of them. The level of the jokes here rarely goes much above the puerile, with the emphasis on Daniel’s coitus interruptus with Lilly and Émilien’s puppy-dog obsession with Petra. I promise this opinion isn’t based on not understanding the film, as although I must have missed nuances in the script, my French isn’t so bad that I had to rely on subtitles to follow what was being said.

It’s not as if the story’s great, either. You might assume that the bank robberies would bring their own thrills and spills but they are perfunctorily filmed, Besson investing the robbers with no more characteristics than flailing machine guns, Germanic sneers and different disguises for each bank job.

The leads are barely better served: Daniel is essentially infallible, a brilliant driver also given to sparkling quips and flawless hunches that lead the mismatched pair ever closer to the Germans, whilst Émilien is a small, squeaky man with a small, petty mind to match, his main talent causing mayhem and ruining his colleagues’ best-laid plans. Naceri isn‘t completely charmless and his Daniel’s never actively annoying, though he’s a cocky swine you don’t easily warm to; neither is Diefenthal tremendously sympathetic, though to be fair he plays the farceur quite well.

Given all this, you might wonder if Taxi has anything to recommend it. Luckily, the film is on much surer footing when it comes to filming the car stuff, the one thing it has to do well. As soon as Daniel swaps his taxi’s plain steering wheel for a bespoke racing one, Taxi shifts up a gear and offers the excitement you want it to deliver from start to finish. Even though it relies on the robbers acting completely illogically, in the final chase there are glimpses of what might have been as Daniel leaves the bad guys high and dry; these pacy, thrilling scenes make you wish the film had spent much less of its time on stodgy comedy and pratfalls.

If you’ve not seen French cinema before, Taxi is probably a good film to watch as a way in, since it completely eschews the sophistication of French Cinema in favour of a simplistic, masculine accessibility; the appropriation of Dick Dale’s Misirlou from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack tells you everything you need to know. But while this could have been worse (one day I’ll see Queen Latifah’s remake and despair completely), I do think this could have been much better, and could have dispensed with its goofy edge without losing any of the elements that draw in the Fast and the Furious crowd. Watchable, after a fashion, but disappointingly dumb.

The Cable Guy

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Steven Kovacs doesn’t know what he’s letting himself in for when he tries to bribe a few extra channels from his cable guy, Chip Douglas. The arrangement somehow turns into a blossoming friendship, at least as far as Chip’s concerned; but when Chip starts turning up at all hours, delivering high-end electronics and cosying up to Steven’s girlfriend and family, Steven finds his life turning into a nightmare straight out of the Twilight Zone.

It would be fair to say that life hasn’t exactly been going to plan for Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick): he asked girlfriend Robin (Leslie Mann) to marry him, she told him to move out. As Steven settles into his new pad, his friend Rick (Jack Black) suggests that he should tip his cable guy $50 to be hooked up to extra channels for free; and even though the guy, Chip Douglas (Jim Carrey), seems a little odd, the bribe is offered and taken, the quid pro quo being that Steven hangs out with Chip as a buddy.

Initially, the friendship goes well enough, Steven offering to help Chip overcome his lisp and Chip taking Steven for a surprisingly violent night out at a medieval-themed restaurant; but as Steven tries to win Robin back while remaining in his boss’s good books, Chip begins to loom ever larger in his life. He gives Steven ridiculous gifts – a huge TV and karaoke system, a party full of guests – and involves himself intimately in Steven and Robin’s personal lives, dealing viciously with Robin’s potential date and hooking her up with cable as – so she thinks – a reconciliatory offering from Steven. Although Steven eventually plucks up the courage to tell Chip to get lost, he discovers that this particular cable guy handles rejection very, very badly.

Life invasion movies come in all flavours, from cute and cuddly (Planes, Tranes and Automobiles) to sinister and psychotic (Fatal Attraction), so in theory there’s no reason why The Cable Guy shouldn’t work. It’s obvious what Ben Stiller’s black comedy is trying to do: Chip is the product of neglect, having been brought up more by television than his mother; and his sociopathic nature reflects thousands of hours spent in front of the box, his only friend and guide.

Also, the film repeatedly cuts to the televised trial of Sam Sweet (Stiller), accused of murdering his twin brother Stan, reflecting the box’s grisly fascination with lurid murders (at the time the film was made, O.J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers) and providing a decent set-up for a satire about TV’s malign influences.

Yet in execution, it doesn’t come off at all. Why? It’s easy to blame Carrey – or say he’s miscast, at least – and it’s true that his jaw-jutting, in-your-face, lisping lunatic is memorable for all the wrong reasons. The monster that TV created, Chip Douglas is a real grotesque, and one that the viewer wants to escape from every bit as much as Steven; but he’s only part of the movie’s bigger problem, namely its confused, awkward tone. It’s too broad to be a drama, too unsettling to raise many laughs, and its satirical intent is almost completely obscured by Carrey’s outlandish performance, an unfortunate irony given the subsequent success of the much blander Truman Show.

The Cable Guy fails because of its curious tone, indifferent writing and – whether you blame the actor or not – off-putting central character. All three are brought together during the central karaoke party scene where Chip belts out Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, a performance which is neither funny nor threatening, simply bizarre. Also, while you imagine the Sam/Stan Sweet subplot is going to become relevant to the plot in some interesting way, it doesn’t, although I understand that the lack of a pay-off to that story thread is precisely its point. And while I’m complaining, there’s a terrible edit made to the British DVD which removes Carrey headbutting Broderick, a nonsensical decision in the light of the vicious and not remotely comic beating dished out to Owen Wilson in a gents’ loo (perhaps the censors thought ‘Hey, it’s Owen Wilson, he deserves it’?).

It would be wrong to label the movie a complete disaster. Broderick, as usual, is pretty good as the ordinary man to whom dreadful things happen, while the rest of the cast are fine in small roles. As far as jokes go, there are a few gems: I shudder to think that places such as Medieval Times actually exist, but the utensils/Pepsi exchange between Broderick and a beautifully bored Janeane Garofalo is a joy. Furthermore, whilst I cringed throughout the scene of Chip meeting the Kovacs family, the film ramps up its deeply disturbed/disturbing tension consistently towards its action-orientated climax. In some respects, it’s also strangely prescient about the future of the information superhighway, since you can indeed shop from home and play Mortal Kombat with friends in Vietnam, should you choose.

If you liked Carrey’s larger than life performance in The Mask, you may well enjoy his equally arresting performance here. Alternatively, you might be put off (as I was) by his character’s oddities and vicious nature; and if you didn’t like Carrey in the first place, The Cable Guy is very unlikely to bring you round. Ben Stiller’s movie is a curiosity which works as an examination of the dangers of embarking on ‘casual’ friendships, as well as an uncomfortable warning about letting the television in the corner babysit your children. Sadly, it doesn’t work half as well as a piece of entertainment.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Dewey Cox overcomes the accidental death of his brother Nate, and the subsequent disapproval of his father, to become a rock’n’roll sensation by putting his life experiences on disc. However, the attendant temptations of the touring lifestyle see him fall into a spiral of drug use and infidelity – though if one good woman can’t save him, perhaps two will do the job.

Boys will be boys, they say, and that’s especially true of the adventurous Cox lads, Dewey and Nate. Nate’s a prodigious musician, the apple of their father’s (Raymond J. Barry) eye, so he’s mortified when Nate is bisected accidentally one summer afternoon by Dewey, and makes a lifelong decision that the wrong kid died.

Little wonder, then, that Dewey (John C. Reilly) grows up wanting to honour Nate by being a soulful musician; he discovers the amazing effect that rock’n’roll can have on girls, and at fourteen moves out with girlfriend Edith (Kristen Wiig) to try to make it in the world. Initially, her claims that he’ll never make it appear to be accurate, but Dewey discovers that by pouring his troubles into the song Walk Hard, he and his band become a sensation.

While Dewey meets the great musical stars of the day – Elvis, The Beatles – his most fateful meeting is with Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer); drawn by an unstoppable attraction, the pair marry, only for Dewey’s existing marriage to Edith – and their endless children – to get in the way. Distraught, Dewey fills the gap with a host of drugs provided by despairing drummer Sam (Tim Meadows), making his walk back to Darlene and contentment a very, very hard one.

Hey, have you ever noticed how awkward musical biopics are sometimes? You know, movies like Walk the Line and…er, other ones, how forced they are when they name-check real people or show musicians coming up with their famous songs? Well, Jake Kasdan and co-writer Judd Apatow certainly have – and while you might think it would be hard to stretch the joke out longer than a five-minute sketch, they’ve seen fit to make an entire film around it.

Unfortunately, it’s simply not funny enough. Whether exaggerating the events of Johnny Cash’s life or goofing around, there are moments in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story when you feel rather sad for the state of film comedy. The movie’s very first joke is a man shouting “I need Cox”, and it’s never too far from a knob gag, or indeed a knob (are penises really that funny? I refer you to the relevant bits of my Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall reviews (I could swear there was a common theme here)). There are naked women around too, because…you know, they always perk up a movie. Apparently.

It’s not completely laugh-free – there’s a nice bit where Dewey sings protest songs in support of little people, and there are other chucklesome moments – but those moments are overshadowed by a lot of stuff which is crass or just doesn’t work – the Jews running the music industry, for example, or Dewey’s countless children.

Whatever the pros and cons of the specific jokes, the film has a bigger hurdle to climb, namely that it never quite hits the right tone. It’s not packed with enough gags to qualify as a Rutles-like spoof; it’s not clever enough to remotely approach the wit of A Mighty Wind; it’s not sweet enough to stand comparison with School of Rock; and it’s not wild or broad enough to be ranked alongside Zoolander or Elf.

I mention the last two specifically because it’s easy to imagine what Will Ferrell would’ve made of the part – without improving the material any, he would have placed it in a definitively comic context (one could go back further and imagine a pretty good Steve Martin/Carl Reiner film). John C. Reilly does what he can, but he’s just that bit too actorly in the role, his intensity and destructiveness all too sincere.

Strangely, though, what’s good about Walk Hard is also mostly down to Reilly. While Dewey Cox isn’t a particularly funny creation, in Reilly’s hands he’s almost believable; and having proved he could sing in Chicago, Reilly belts out the tunes for all he’s worth, turning passable pastiches into pretty decent numbers. Meadows is good fun, while Fischer and Wiig make what they can of indifferent roles, but there’s nothing to get excited about in the predictable roster of cameos: Jonah Hill as the hacked-off ghost of Nate; Jane Lynch, filling in a minute or two as a reporter; Paul Rudd (he had to be here somewhere) as John Lennon alongside Justin Long’s George, Jason Schwartzman’s Ringo and Jack Black’s Paul. Credit where credit’s due, Rudd and (especially) Long have a crack at the Scouse accent; Schwartzman pulls a silly face, and Black shows no desire whatsoever to even approximate McCartney’s rounded tones.

I should explain that I speak as someone who’s seen Walk the Line: heaven help anyone unaware of what Walk Hard is actually poking fun at. Fundamentally, though, whether you’ve seen the Cash biopic is immaterial, since this movie all too rarely finds the sweet spot between parody and zaniness, all too often coming over as vulgar, flat and uninspired. If it’s better-assembled than the unfortunate Rock Star – this is supposed to be a comedy, at least – I’m afraid to say that I probably laughed at Mark Wahlberg’s movie more.

Shrek 2

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Shrek and his new bride Fiona are summoned to Far, Far Away to meet the in-laws. Finding his daughter disagreeably green, the king plots to do away with Shrek and, for his own reasons, install Prince Charming as a replacement husband; Shrek will need help from more than his faithful donkey if true love is going to win out this time.

The original Shrek became a massive hit not because it looked fabulous, taking computer animated feature films to a new level, but because it was really, really good; it took the conventions of fairytale storytelling and turned them on their head, with feisty heroes and heroines that lacked the pert noses and chiselled chins of a hundred Disney princes and princesses, and a smart script that satisfied children and adults alike. Best of all, the happy ending was true to the spirit of the film, Shrek and Fiona’s wedding tying up all the loose ends very nicely indeed.

Unfortunately for Dreamworks, the ending had to be unknotted a little when it became clear that a sequel would make the studio pots of money was artistically in the best interests of all concerned. Once again the animation is terrific, and there’s nothing wrong with the set-up, Shrek, Fiona and Donkey (voiced again by Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy respectively) travelling to the Hollywood-like Far, Far Away to meet the King and Queen (John Cleese and Julie Andrews); but once there, the plot becomes complicated very quickly, with the King in hock to Jennifer Saunders’ Fairy Godmother, who demands that her self-narrating son (eh?) Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) should be Fiona’s real husband. Meanwhile, the bad-tempered introduction to the family causes friction between Shrek and Fiona, the ogre reading his wife’s diary and coming to the conclusion that he may not be her ideal husband.

Marital strife doesn’t sound like everyone’s idea of fun, and it is clear that, even allowing for affronted furniture, the dense plotting of Shrek 2 often pushes the jokes to one side. The script lurches from scene to scene rather than flowing naturally like its predecessor, and it has to be said that few of the new characters have either the charm or pantomime villainy you would hope for. This is particularly true of the King, for whom Cleese’s voice is a poor match (why does he have to be English when Fiona is clearly American?); also, British audiences are treated to the vocal ‘talents’ of Jonathan Ross and Kate Thornton, the latter particularly misplaced as her character looks exactly like Joan Rivers!

Thank heavens, then, for Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots. Originally assigned to assassinate Shrek, he accompanies the ogre and Donkey on a Quest to make Shrek beautiful in a fairly predictable reversal of the first film. Puss sounds the part and, with his big eyes, is cute as a button. He carries the middle part of the film, because although Donkey’s transformation into a stallion is entertaining, Shrek as a handsome brute of a human is less fun than when he’s a green beast.

Anyway, the plot shoehorns the favourite fairytale characters (Pinocchio, the gingerbread man, the pigs etc.) into rescuing these adventurers and preventing Charming from kissing Fiona before midnight. There are a few decent jokes during this sequence, not least the appearance of Mungo, the giant gingerbread tribute to Mr Stay-Puft in Ghostbusters, heroically downed by Cappuccino, or Pinocchio’s momentary transformation into a real boy; but there is nothing to match Dragon’s storming of the church, and too many tiresome pop culture references.

Talking of pop, some of the music is pretty poor too – Pete Yorn covers the Buzzcocks’ classic Ever Fallen in Love?, Butterfly Boucher make a horrible mess of Bowie’s Changes and a ghastly version of Holding out for a Hero by Frou Frou runs over the end credits. And before you ask, I’ve never heard of any of these people either.

There’s as much to lament as there is to laud about Shrek 2. On its own terms it’s adequate, obviously successful enough for the producers to have yet another go and in no way disgracing the memory of the original (yes, I am looking at you, Babe: Pig in the City); but neither does it build much on the original. Given the choice, and assuming it isn’t too fresh in your memory, watch the first Shrek every time.