Tag Archives: 8/20

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Despite securing a totally excellent future, would-be legends Bill and Ted still find the path to rock glory a tricky one. Their job is made no easier by robot versions of themselves, sent from the 27th Century and programmed to bump off their real counterparts, changing the future to the liking of their evil creator, Chuck De Nomolos; but Bill and Ted discover that death is only the beginning of the journey.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure hung around the studio vaults for a while before getting released, so its subsequent success may have come as a surprise to executives. What should surprise nobody is that with the first film making money, a sequel should appear while the names of Bill and Ted were still fresh and their fans still young enough to appreciate them. And speed seems to have been of the essence: despite sharing the same writers as the original (Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon), Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey feels like a hastily cobbled-together piece, taking ideas from one or more idling scripts and reworking them to fit into Bill and Ted’s world. I am only surmising here, but if that is what happened then excuses can be made for the film‘s disjointed plot. If the script was freshly written, then the directions it takes are strange indeed.

So, what is that plot? Bogus Journey begins in the idyllic world of 27th Century San Dimas California, where everyone walks round in ugly foam clothing and Rufus (George Carlin) continues to bring historical personages from the past to enlighten students. Crashing noisily into the scenario, evil former gym teacher De Nomolos (Joss Ackland), backed up by a black-clad army, explains that he is sending robotic versions of Bill and Ted to the late 20th Century to kill the ‘real them’ and disrupt the Battle of the Bands competition that the boys’ band Wild Stallyns have entered.

Even without this threat hanging over them, things are not going well for Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) in the present day: they have no money, still cannot play their guitars, and Ted still has the threat of military academy hanging over him. On the plus side, their 15th Century princess girlfriends do agree to marry them. Unfortunately, not long after the proposals, the robots arrive and dispatch our heroes into the hands of the Grim Reaper, who follows the fleeing pair through Hell and condemns them to the eternal afterlife – unless they challenge and defeat him in a game of their choosing.

Bogus Journey is to be congratulated for doing something different from its predecessor, as so many sequels are content to slavishly follow what came before. However, whilst ditching nearly all of the time travel, the filmmakers have also ditched the dumb but exuberant sense of fun that Excellent Adventure brought to the screen. Even if it is only temporary and doesn’t stop Bill and Ted going about their business, killing off the leads does put something of a downer on the film, especially as Robot Bill and Ted are more convincingly nasty than funny.

Likewise, when the pair are trapped in their personal Hells, the figures of Bill’s slavering Granny and Ted’s Easter Bunny are disturbing rather than amusing. And I don’t ‘get’ the Star Trek joke, if that’s what it is. Is the use of the same bit of rock that William Shatner once ran up amusing? I don’t know, but I do get the feeling that somewhere on the journey, the comedy got lost.

An honourable exception to this is the figure of Death, played by William Sadler. Ashen-faced and imposing, once bested in his challenges* (Battleships, Cluedo, Twister and so on) he follows Bill and Ted like a meek child as they seek help to rescue the Princesses and their futures. Whether in the foreground or background, Sadler is always funny when he is on-screen, easily outshining Winter and Reeves who may well have considered themselves rather old for this sort of thing by 1991. There are other good moments, such as the longest fall in movie history and Kiss’s cover of the catchy God Gave Rock and Roll to You II, but in general the good is outweighed by the odd, and when God (yes!) leads Bill and Ted to the Martian scientist(s) Station to create ‘good robot uses’ the viewer is fully entitled to ask ‘Where the hell has that come from?’ It should also be said that whilst most of the film’s effects are okay – the robots and Station are convincing enough – some of the ones where Bill and Ted communicate from the ‘Other Side’ are pretty ropey.

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey takes the pleasant stupidity of Excellent Adventure and tries to create something more significant; whilst it touches base with the phrases and mannerisms of the first film – the air guitar riffs are overused – the journey is a much darker affair. Lacking the original’s light touch, it also lacks its charm, momentum and coherence. And while there is entertainment to be had, the Grim Reaper in particular proving less than grim, you occasionally wish that Bill and Ted would just get on with it, a feeling you never got with the pair’s debut. Not completely bogus, then, but a bit non-non heinous all the same.

NOTES: Evidently a nod to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and Heaven looks quite a lot like it does in A Matter of Life and Death. Clever, yes, but even if you get the allusions, it doesn’t make them all that enjoyable.

Daredevil

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Fuelled by a burning sense of justice from his childhood, blind lawyer Matt Murdock spends his spare time dishing out just desserts to Hell’s Kitchen’s criminals. His world is turned upside-down by the arrival of sparky heiress Elektra Nachios, but the interference of the ruthless Kingpin in her family affairs causes both of them a world of pain.

There’s a quaint little quiz show on British television called Pointless, in which people attempt to answer simple questions with the most obscure answers, in an attempt to achieve the lowest possible score. For example, were the category ‘Stan Lee comic characters’, answers such as Spider-Man or The Hulk would be bad, because everyone has heard of them. However, in the UK at least, Daredevil would most likely be a very good answer, since he remains pretty much unknown despite this 2003 movie treatment. That’s not, however, entirely the film’s fault.

As a youngster, Matt Murdock (Scott Terra) worships his boxer father, until the moment the boy witnesses him working as a heavy for crime boss Fallon. Fleeing from the scene, Matt has an unfortunate collision with toxic chemicals which robs him of his sight, though his remaining senses are heightened, proving a useful compensation. Matt’s father is killed for refusing to throw a fight, which fuels the adult Matt’s (now Ben Affleck) passion for justice some years later, where he athletically rights the wrongs by night that slip out of his reach in his day job as a pro bono lawyer.

While being berated for his lack of ambition (and money) by partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau), Matt catches the scent of a woman, Elektra Nachios (Jennifer Garner); and although their initial meeting is more martial arts-based than many first encounters, the pair eventually hit it off romantically too. Meanwhile, Elektra’s father Nikolas incurs the wrath of his boss Wilson Fisk (Michael Clarke Duncan), and despite Elektra and Daredevil’s best efforts they cannot save him from the deadly accuracy of Colin Farrell’s Bullseye, who makes a vengeful Elektra believe that Daredevil was the assassin. Though they resolve their differences, the heroic pair will have to be fearless – and make sacrifices – to bring down Fisk, aka the evil ‘Kingpin’.

Although Daredevil the character is undoubtedly influenced by Batman, it would be misleading to associate the films too closely; after all, in 2003 the last moviegoers had seen of the Dark Knight was in the execrable Batman and Robin, Chris Nolan’s reboot still two years off. So Mark Steven Johnson’s film deserves more than a little credit for its camp-free approach to the tale, which interestingly begins in the middle, with Daredevil severely wounded.

It’s interesting too that our superhero is a man of limited powers, meaning that he (for example) can’t prevent the death of Mr Nachios; he’s also a bundle of uncertainties, despite his profound claim of being a ‘man without fear’: he takes pills, has a confessor (Derrick O’Connor’s helpful Father Everett), and generally wears the weight of the world on his shoulders. Murdock has a lithe, lively partner in Garner’s Elektra, an affable comic foil in Favreau, and a quirky enemy in Farrell’s paper clip-flinging bad guy, whose exaggerated comic-strip nature works well, especially during cinema’s first and only* recorded fight on the pipes of a pipe organ. Perhaps best of all, amid the otherwise merely loud soundtrack there’s the wonderful Evanescence track Bring Me To Life, which excuses a multitude of sins.

Which is just as well, since Daredevil has plenty of sins that need excusing. The biggest problems lie in Daredevil himself, because his blindness never feels much more than a gimmick. In fact, because Murdock’s other senses are so acute that they allow him to, er, see, more or less, it barely even qualifies as a disability. Furthermore, for all his moral qualms, fancy moves and nice burgundy outfit, Daredevil is not so interesting. Johnson seems to admit as much halfway through, when the movie starts lingering jealously over Elektra’s leather outfits and athletic workouts instead: no bad thing for the viewer, but something of an indictment of the titular hero and Affleck’s (sadly) typical charmless performance.

It’s not that Affleck doesn’t do the action bits well, or even the tortured soul act, but that sneer on his face robs Matt Murdock of sincerity, vulnerability and warmth. That said, he’s not alone: Michael Clarke Duncan is, of course, a physically imposing figure, but his Kingpin is completely generic – the cigar, the laugh – and his battle with Daredevil provides half a climax at best; and quite what Joe Pantoliano is doing in the movie is anyone’s guess (actually, it’s not – his character, floppy-hatted reporter Ben Urich, is a plot device and nothing more).

I should also say that while Garner looks nice, she doesn’t exactly possess great range; her chemistry with her future [ex-]husband is all but spoilt by their risible impromptu fight, which recalls the illogic of The Avengers (which can never be a good thing), and the non-sexual sex scene becomes laughable as it resorts to the desperate cliché of the roaring log fire (which must have been a joke – tell us it was a joke, Mark!). Finally, there are some visual niggles: a lot of the fightwork looks fake, as does the improbable building-leaping where, just like Spider-Man, computer models fail to realistically replicate the actors’ movements.

Since Daredevil preceded Batman Begins, comparisons with Nolan’s instant classic are almost entirely unfair. On the other hand, if this film were more substantial or subversive it might be remembered alongside Nolan’s vision, rather than being totally eclipsed by it. Heck, Elektra got her own film in 2005, while Daredevil himself was left in the shadows/on the cutting room floor. A competent comic strip adaptation, Daredevil has a few things going for it; but in many respects it doesn’t help its own cause, and later, better films have made this one feel rather – what’s the word? –pointless.

NOTES: Prove me wrong, if you can.

Stepford Wives, The (1975)

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Joanna Eberhart moves from New York to the quiet village of Stepford at the insistence of her husband Walter, and is instantly struck by its quiet nature and the docility of its female inhabitants. Jo and her new friend Bobby start delving a little deeper into why this might be and stumble upon a disturbing secret that the menfolk of Stepford have been keeping to themselves.

As I hinted at in my review for the ill-judged 2004 version of Ira Levin’s story, the phrase ‘Stepford Wife’ is now in such common usage that it’s pretty much impossible to watch either movie without already knowing where it’s headed. That said, one version of the story is a silly, inconsistent mess; the other – this one – is not without flaws but has a great deal more to offer.

The Eberhart family head to Stepford from the bustle of New York, much to the relief of lawyer Walter (Peter Masterson) but much less happily for wife Joanna (Katharine Ross), an aspiring photographer, and their two children. For Stepford is everything New York isn’t: quiet, green, and with a sense of community that borders on the archaic (useful word, that) as neighbour Carol Van Sant (Nanette Newman) instantly proves when she welcomes the Eberharts with a casserole. Jo finds the place odd, since the women of Stepford are excessively domestic and occasionally eccentric, such as when Carol suffers a car accident or drinks too much; but Walter is welcomed with open arms into the village’s secretive Men’s Association, even if his first meeting appears to trouble him.

Luckily, Jo finds a friend in non-conformist newcomer Bobby (Paula Prentiss) and another in unhappily married trophy wife Charmaine (Tina Louise); together, the trio attempt to instil a bit of feminist feeling into Stepford’s doting housewives, but Carol (who previously organised something similar herself) and the others are far too pre-occupied with their housework to join in.

As Walter increasingly buries himself in his work and the Association, under the influence of biochemist Dale Coba (Patrick O’Neal), known as ‘Diz’ because of his work with Disney animatronics, Jo and Bobby become increasingly convinced that the women of Stepford are being controlled by their men, a suspicion confirmed when Charmaine changes overnight from an unhappy but independent thinker to a compliant drone. But as the ladies are to find out, the full horror of Stepford is something that they could not possibly imagine.

More than anything, The Stepford Wives is kept afloat by the power of its theme. The idea of feminism being such a threat to the male population that they would murder their spouses and replace them with facsimiles is clearly bananas (especially thirty-plus years down the line), but as a reductio ad absurdum it makes for effective satire, and in the female leads of this film (Ross, Prentiss, Louise, Newman) there are convincing and enjoyable examples of strong women being neutralized by their inadequate husbands.

Stepford is a troubled paradise, Joanna’s misgivings bolstered by a suitably creepy electronic-flavoured score, and as the film creeps towards its climax it gains in power, with ‘replacement’ Bobby’s malfunction and the two final scenes particularly impressing: Joanna comes face to face with her own physically-enhanced robot, before the terrifyingly bland aftermath in the supermarket (note how the wives skirt around the arguing black couple, newly arrived as mentioned in passing earlier in the film). These scenes represent the best of the film and emphasise the good performances from the ladies as mentioned above.

However, although it needs space to build up atmosphere (Jo visits a psychiatrist to voice her fears), The Stepford Wives does take its time in getting anywhere and by any measure must be considered slow-moving. There’s very little in the way of action, emphasised when Jo allows Diz to disarm her of a weapon that she’s recently hit her husband with, then runs from him; this feeling is aggravated by Bryan Forbes’ pedestrian directing, which often results in a film that is flabbily paced, episodic (the scenes rarely flow from one into the other) and unattractive, not to mention poorly lit in several important places. Neither can the film be considered proper science fiction, since the genesis of the robots barely goes beyond shots of technological-sounding company buildings and a few words like ‘biochemicals’ and ‘computer junk’; though to be fair, the film concerns itself less with the mistrust of technological advancement (like Coma and Soylent Green) than with the mistrust of human nature.

Furthermore, although Jo’s chosen profession as a photographer has a certain resonance – the photos she takes capture human expressions like laughter and love – the point is never brought home; and other, lesser plot strands go nowhere at all, specifically Jo’s first love, the unhappily-named Raymond Chandler (Robert Fields), who pops up to confirm there’s nothing wrong with Stepford’s water, makes a brief play for his old flame, then disappears again.

Ira Levin created in The Stepford Wives an iconic and timely idea which has endured and which can still inform relationships between the sexes today. Bryan Forbes only partially succeeded in bringing this idea to the screen, and not with any great style, hence the score; but make no mistake, there is a provocative intelligence and a compelling paranoia to this film, two features entirely absent from the Kidman/Broderick/Midler fiasco of 2004.

Spectre

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Tipped off beyond the grave by M, Bond embarks on a solo mission to track down the common thread behind all of his recent troubles, leading him into a worldwide search for a man who’s strangely familiar to Bond, via a beautiful psychologist with a murky family past.

If you’re after a relaxing holiday companion, Commander James Bond (Daniel Craig) is probably not your man. After all, he can’t enjoy a Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City without pursuing a vendetta against – well, he’s not entirely sure what, or who, he’s pursuing, but – as his last ‘M’ has told him in a posthumous message – it involves offing one Marco Sciarra, seducing his widow (Monica Bellucci), finding someone called the ‘Pale King’, then his daughter, psychologist Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), and finally tracking down the shadowy Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a ghost from Bond’s past.

Back home, Bond’s rogue investigations infuriate his new ‘M’ (Ralph Fiennes), not least because there’s a brash young ‘C’ in town by the name of Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), threatening to close down the ‘00’ programme entirely, relying on omnipresent surveillance techniques to collect global data. Bond, with reluctant help from ‘Q’ (Ben Whishaw), needs to act fast to piece together the puzzle of Oberhauser, leading him to encounters with the sharp-nailed Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista) and, naturally, getting to know Dr Swann rather more intimately.

It was for Octopussy that I remarked on Bond being a de facto immortal, giving the producers the problem that if he’s never going to die, how entertainingly can he live? Spectre appears to ask a different question: given that this particular 007 is manifestly not up for entertaining the masses in traditional ways, how little can we actually do and still call this a Bond film?

For it must be said that Spectre is in many ways a profoundly lazy film, manifested most in the impassive, set gaze of Daniel Craig. We know that his Bond is a man of few words, but here he’s a man of relatively few actions either, barely breaking into either a sweat or a run in any of the film’s otherwise impressive action scenes. While Craig’s detachment was a welcome novelty in Casino Royale, it served him poorly in Quantum of Solace and makes the viewer feel peculiarly uninvolved here.

Craig, though, is only partially to blame. The script is the real villain, lazily stitching elements from other Bond films together – a train scene that’s a little From Russia with Love mixed with Odd Job from Goldfinger, an Alpine health resort that’s very On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – with just enough of the stock phrases and standard tropes (first woman is seduced for information, the second for something approaching love) to make the whole thing feel kosher.

Yet so much of the film takes the viewer’s goodwill for granted. Early on, Bond drops from a perilous height onto a comfy settee; yes, it’s a jokey nod to his imperishable nature, but it seems a rather sarcastic touch. Elsewhere, scenes with potential for espionage-based excitement are left out to cut to the chase – for example, being chauffeur-driven to the ‘lair’ rather than secretly infiltrating it (I’d also love to have seen 007 breaking into Q’s lab to get the DB10). This would be fine if the contents of the film were equally exciting, but a lot of it is flabbily-written fluff; a little further dig into Bond’s psychology, for example, or Moneypenny’s dreadful ‘You’ve got a secret. Something you can’t tell anyone’ (as if the word ‘secret’ was itself an unknown mystery).

The two overarching stories are equally uninspiring. The surveillance theme can claim relevance and sets up a credible villain in the oily C, but the entire storyline about the true, or new, or whatever identify of Oberhauser is a complete non-starter: the film’s called Spectre, and most non-Bond fans could tell you who the head of SPECTRE is – there’s not even a hint of double-bluff to throw us off the scent. And the way the two stories are resolved is a real botch job*, with two ticking clocks: the first is resolved without any drama whatsoever, the second spoilt by Oberhauser’s impractical taunting of how SPECTRE has ruined Bond’s life – Craig’s stony-faced spy is not going to fall for that sort of thing. Neither does Waltz seem a particularly threatening villain, considering the tools at his disposal; though I’m sure we’ve not seen the last of him.

Fortunately, none of this makes Spectre a horrible failure. The action scenes in Mexico City and Rome are a treat, and despite an irritating fondness for focus pulls the film looks terrific. Moreover, the film lives in its secondary characters: the rotting Mr White, the lurking Hinx, the long-suffering M and peevish Q. Seydoux’s Swann is a woman with real attitude and a credible history, and does more than the traditional Bond girl is asked to do in terms of acting. Together, these characters help to round out Spectre into a functional movie, yet even here the writers fall down on the job. James and Madeleine arrive in London, acutely aware that danger lurks around every corner; and she’s allowed to wander off on her own? Swann is surely too clever for such things; Christmas Jones, or Mary Goodnight, now that’s another matter…

I was never bored by Spectre, and while I didn’t love Craig’s taciturn hero, he’s still preferable (in my mind) to any of Roger Moore’s tepid turns as 007. Like him or not, this current Bond has style; regrettably, on this occasion he has very little of substance to work with, making Spectre a distinctly sub-standard effort in the series. It’s a Bond film – just about – but not much of one.

NOTE: Not that I’m one to condone leaks or hacks, but Sony emails about the deficiencies of the third act of Spectre make for an intriguing read. Safe to say that not all of the execs’ concerns were addressed in full.

The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: The end of the world comes to Royston Vasey – much to the dismay of its inhabitants, all characters from TV show The League of Gentlemen. Finding a portal to the ‘real world’, three of the characters seek out the writers to persuade them to keep the sitcom going; but one of their number meddles with another script, bringing both real and fictional people face to face with the devilishly evil Dr Pea.

The less British among you might not have any idea who or what the League of Gentlemen are, so before I get tangled up with the plot, a tiny bit of explanation. They are a group of four writers – Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson – who have created a macabre world in the fictional village of Royston Vasey*, populated by grotesque characters who are brought to life by the first three. As Dyson is modest about his acting abilities, he does not appear on screen much and here he is represented by Michael Sheen, mulling over the future of the show at his cliff-top home; ‘Dyson’ discovers that the other three are not going to continue writing The League of Gentlemen and is immediately visited by some of their creations: bizarre shopkeepers Edward and Tubbs (Shearsmith, Pemberton) and the terrifying blackface clown Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith). Dyson, unsurprisingly, falls off the cliff in shock.

Meanwhile, supernatural goings-on in Royston Vasey lead three more of the residents – homicidal butcher Hilary Briss (Gatiss), incessant innuendo-monger Herr Lipp (Pemberton) and mouthy businessman Geoff Tipps (Shearsmith) – to seek refuge in the local church, where a portal takes them into the real world, ie. the village where the TV show is filmed. Realising they must get hold of the writers to save their universe, they steal the computer belonging to Pemberton, Gatiss and Shearsmith; they also take Pemberton hostage, forcing Lipp to impersonate him in his daily life (where he proves a decidedly better father and husband than the real thing).

Hilary and Geoff discover that the group are working on a screenplay called The King’s Evil, and while Hilary just wants the thing deleted Geoff can’t help having a read of the story, which involves plotters calling on the help of Satan-worshipping magician Dr Pea (David Warner) to kill Protestant King William (played by Bernard Hill). Unfortunately, Geoff also can’t help writing himself (and his big, er, appendage) into the plot, a move which has terrible repercussions when Pea frees himself from the confines of the script to wreak havoc upon Royston Vasey and the real-life writers who have been lured into their own fiction.

If you are a fan of British comedy in search of something Pythonesque and think this might be just the trick, you are likely to be disappointed in Apocalypse. When it came to making feature films, the Pythons realised that what worked on television wouldn’t necessarily work at the cinema; and although The League of Gentlemen are clever enough to acknowledge the dreary record of sitcom-to-film transfers (Pauline from the ‘job club’ suggests sending all the characters on a Spanish holiday, Are You Being Served-style) they fall into some of the same traps anyway.

Sitcom characters are by their nature limited – they have twenty-five minute adventures but are back to square one the next week – and asking them to be the heroes of an entire film is a stretch, especially since most of the characterisations are, as Apocalypse freely admits, one-joke parts. Herr Lipp is a particular victim in this regard, and most of his interactions with Emily Woof as Pemberton’s wife are laughter-free.

Of the two devices the film uses to be more than a cinematic rehash of the TV show, The King’s Evil is the more successful, simply because it has a plot that goes somewhere and some interesting effects in Dr Pea’s monstrous creations (as always, David Warner is good value); as for the fictional characters chasing down their creators, the idea contains some laughs – though none of the men are very interesting as themselves – but it doesn’t feel particularly original (Adaptation and several Woody Allen films, not least Deconstructing Harry, come to mind).

To its credit, Apocalypse makes light work of the potential for confusion when the three worlds (the ‘real’ one, the Royston Vasey villagers, and the cast of The King’s Evil) collide, mainly by sharply delineating the characters with the use of costume, make-up, accents and so on. Still, this isn’t a film that you will get much out of if you are new to the LoG world, as it presents the characters without any introduction; many of the lesser roles (such as Pauline, or the vet with a habit of killing his patients) will make very little sense to newcomers, and even the more prominent characters lose a lot of their power in being removed from the mythology they have built up on television. Disappointingly, Tubbs and Papa Lazarou – two of the most immediately enjoyable characters from the show – only make brief appearances, which makes several unnecessary cameos (Peter Kay’s, for example) extremely annoying.

If all this sounds utterly damning, it’s not meant to be. The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse will make you laugh, unless you’re particularly easily offended, but the mishmash of ideas makes for a fractured viewing experience; and it’s interesting that many of the jokes that would be considered brave and shocking on television are revealed to be nothing of the sort on film – what is an ejaculating giraffe but a spin on an American Pie joke? The dark humour may have been toned down to achieve a 15 rating, but it only reveals the juvenile nature of much of what lies underneath. Like the final, obvious pay-off gag where Sheen wakes up in a hospital where everyone has tails, Apocalypse raises a gentle smile; but there should have been a whole lot more.

NOTES: A tribute to and the real name of ‘adult’ comedian Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown; but I’m not really sure why I’m pointing this out as he will also mean nothing to most non-Britons. Ah well.

Rising Sun

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: The murder of a good-time girl on the boardroom table of the Nakamoto Corporation casts a shadow over their proposed takeover of American defence company Microcon. LAPD Lieutenant Webb Smith is sent in to investigate, but he’s surprised to find he’s accompanied by long-lost Captain Connor, an expert on Japanese culture and customs. As they look for a guilty party and find one all too easily, they start to wonder whether they are driving the investigation or are being driven to false conclusions.

It’s 1993: the Cold War may be over but fierce battles are still being fought, such as the struggle for control of Microcon being waged on the 46th floor of the Nakamoto Tower. Under the sage gaze of Yoshida-san (Mako), keen young negotiators Ishihara and brash yuppie Bob Richmond (Stan Egi and Kevin Anderson) press for a deal, while Microcon wait to see what Congress will do, specifically whether Senator Morton (Ray Wise) will maintain his opposition to the ‘surrender’ of American defence technology to the Japanese.

Matters become complicated when party girl Cheryl Lynn (Tatjana Patitz) is found strangled to death on the huge negotiating table, bringing LAPD Lieutenants Tom Graham (Harvey Keitel) and Webb Smith (Wesley Snipes) to investigate the grisly crime scene. Before he arrives, however, Webb is diverted to pick up a certain Captain John Connor (Sean Connery), an experienced liaison officer who spent so much time in Japan, some people assumed he had disappeared there permanently.

With Connor taking the senior role of sempai and Smith, grudgingly, his kohai, the pair quickly find a prime suspect in Cheryl’s sometime lover Eddie Sakamura (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), whose face is captured on Nakamoto’s state-of-the-art security discs. However, something about the convenience of the evidence doesn’t sit right with Connor, even when Eddie flees arrest and his sports car explodes in a fatal ball of flame; and as he and Smith continue to investigate, they come up against vested interests who are more than prepared to do a bit of muck-raking. Luckily, they have digital image expert Jingo (Tia Carrere) on their side.

Regardless of where they come from, films should always be regarded on their own merits; but on the very rare occasions that I’ve a) read the book a film is based on, and b) it has some bearing on the review, I’m duty bound to mention it. I have read Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, and while the film essentially retains the plot of Crichton’s techno-thriller, the transfer from book to screen comes with a number of important additions. Chief amongst these is the casting, the leads Connery and Snipes adding levels of complication to the novel’s key exploration of the conflicts between American and Japanese culture and practice. Connery and Snipes are perfectly fine and quickly develop a cutely comic antagonism, but the explicit inclusion of a Scotsman and an African American only serves to distract from the film’s themes, especially since Webb is narky despite the fact that nobody displays any racism towards him. I say ‘explicit’ because Rising Sun could easily have used the same actors but eschewed the ‘Old Scotland Yard’ and ‘Massa’ references – plus the redundant, if fleetingly amusing, episode in the ‘hood – to concentrate exclusively on plot.

The distractions of Connery and Snipes would also have been readily overcome by fully rounded and coherent plot. Unfortunately, much of the novel’s action is touched on all too lightly, the bits that would have added fluency to the story having been lost during the scriptwriting process or taken out whilst editing. For example, Webb’s introduction is framed around an inquiry which is never fully explained (though, in routine cop-film fashion, it allows Smith and Connor to carry on investigating once he’s been forced to hand in his badge), and his domestic situation isn’t made clear; the shadow of corruption hanging over the police is undercooked, Steve Buscemi’s reporter Willy ‘Weasel’ Wilhelm limited to about three scenes; the political aspects are also underdone, notwithstanding Senator Morton’s rather extreme reaction to bad news. Clearly, a two-hour film can’t hope to replicate all the events of a novel, but Kaufman’s version of Rising Sun chooses to have a half-baked stab at everything rather than remove plot strands that have no mileage (such as the cursory love interest provided by Carrere’s Jingo: Carrere, by the way, is fine, though I look about as Japanese as she does).

I could carry on with the negatives: the action is spread out too thinly and is quickly curtailed when it arrives (the denouement in particular is something of an anti-climax, Snipes’ chop-socky moves cut woefully short); production values are not always the highest (while Webb seems to spend half the film driving, Snipes doesn’t look at the road much); and the radical technology now feels quaint (physical storage media is, like, so 20th Century). On the other hand, at the heart of Rising Sun there’s a strong, sexually-charged tale of mucky corporate shenanigans, a murky tale through which Connery and Snipes wade, Connor ably leading Smith through the mire even though one way or another they’re both up to their necks in it. Accompanying the tale is a fascinating (though how truthful, who knows) glimpse into a still-alien culture, the Japanese approach to personal and business relationships proving a solid backdrop to the mysteries surrounding Eddie and Cheryl Lynn, all backed by a brooding, drum-heavy soundtrack. As for some of the gratuitous nudity, well, you can take it or leave it, but it does give Keitel the opportunity to revel in some shockingly racist fulminations.

Partly because of the changes made to accommodate the talent, partly because of the time-specific story it’s telling, Rising Sun isn’t nearly as effective an adaptation as Jurassic Park or Westworld; and if you’re looking for effective star vehicles, you’ll be better served by Blade or The Rock. Nonetheless, even if the big names pull the story out of shape and cause a number of unsatisfactory loose threads, this is an eminently watchable slice of exotic, oriental spice.

Jesus Christ Superstar

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Among the ruins, a group of actors recreate the last days of Jesus Christ, detailing his rise to glory and his betrayal to the priests by rogue disciple Judas Iscariot. From Judas’ point of view, however, the circus around Jesus is getting out of hand and needlessly messianic. And what kind of betrayal is it when the man to be betrayed appears fully aware, if not fully accepting, of his fate?

A bus pulls up at the historic city of Avdat and disgorges its passengers, a hippyish bunch of actors who proceed to get into gear and character. Roles established, Carl Anderson bursts into song as Judas, outraged that the movement set up by Ted Neeley’s Jesus has been hijacked not only by people who hail him as the New Messiah, but also by his unseemly love for Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman).

The roar of the crowd reaches the disquieted ears of priests Caiaphas and Annas (Bob Bingham and Kurt Yaghjian), and Caiaphas decides that Jesus must be eliminated; however, how to get hold of him through the surrounding disciples and crowds? Judas may provide the answer, though detention alone doesn’t get rid of Jesus; for neither Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) nor King Herod (Joshua Mostel) want to deal with him. Meanwhile, Jesus knows what’s coming but still questions why he has been chosen to redeem mankind.

You might imagine, when filming a musical, that if you get the music to sound as good as it can, you’ve more or less won the battle; and by extension, that Jesus Christ Superstar is a much better film than Ken Russell’s Tommy. Jewison’s film does get the music right; it’s left virtually intact from the concept album, feeling surprisingly, authentically rocky for Andrew Lloyd Webber and containing powerful songs in Heaven on Their Minds, Everything’s Alright, I Don’t Know How to Love Him, Simon Zealotes and the show-stopping title number, plus Jesus’ outstanding Gethsemane.

As with Evita, the linking recitative sections are weaker, but on the whole this is Lloyd Webber writing at his best, that is to say in his own style rather than pastiching others. The singing is strong too, Anderson possessing a fine, growling voice and Neeley a great falsetto, even if his tight vibrato won’t please everyone. Elliman, the original Magdalene from the 1970 concept album, fills the role with emotion and Bingham, Dennen (another original performer) and Larry Marshall as Simon Zealotes are all very effective.

Then there’s the controversy of the plot, which (of course) predates Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code by decades. Tim Rice’s lyrics don’t focus specifically on the question of Jesus’ divinity, but they certainly raise the issue (‘No talk of God then, we called you a man’). More incendiary is the paradox of Judas’ betrayal: if Jesus had to die, then it must have been God’s will for someone to betray him – and therefore Judas was little more than a patsy (‘I’ve been used!’ he screams). Or perhaps Jesus is the one being used? For many, many reasons*, I don’t propose to have the theological debate here; what I will say is that Jesus Christ Superstar intelligently asks provocative questions in an accessible and entertaining format.

Or at least, it should. I come back to the assertion that you get the music right and the rest of the film follows – it’s simply not true. It was an interesting ploy to film Jesus Christ Superstar on rudimentary sets not far from where the biblical action took place, but on the screen it looks for the most part like a scattering of people lost in the middle of the desert in curious outfits (what are those bulb things on the priests’ heads?). It’s also fairly obvious that the actors are not over-familiar with being filmed, because the passion in the voices is not always entirely reflected in the face and body motions – Anderson in particular has a strange habit of flinging his hands behind him like a ski-jumper.

There’s a slight disconnect between the soundtrack and the visuals, the former having been created (one assumes) for the latter to follow. Worse, there are simply not enough visuals to fill the time, so Jewison (who, with Melvyn Bragg, has the gall to take a screenplay credit) is forced to rely on slo-motion and freeze-frame gimmicks while dancers fling themselves about in the hippy-dippy style of Hair or Godspell.

And while there are occasional nods to modern (local?) troubles – a few tanks, fighter planes and the selling of guns and hand grenades in the temple, the significance of these is never explained or put into context. My abiding memory is that of Our Lord pushing over two postcard racks (or possibly the same one, twice).

What counts most against Jesus Christ Superstar is that it simply doesn’t work as a piece of storytelling. Jesus is far too passive, especially during the second half where he is carted around from Caiaphas to Pilate to Herod and finally back to Pilate. He’s reduced to being a stationary figure who sings occasionally, but he’s far from the only one. Jewison’s efforts to liven things up include the ghastly mega-camp treatment of King Herod’s Song, Mostel’s mediocre singing only adding to the scene’s many woes (Jesus wisely stands at a distance, looking vaguely pained but reassured that the song’s only three minutes long). Even the ballsy title track verges on the borders of camp and kitsch, saved only by Judas’ throaty vocals.

Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar has some purpose, a record of the show as it might have looked in the 1970s. It’s not, however, a film that lives long in the memory and is unlikely to win many converts to the musical. Its lasting legacy will be its soundtrack, which brings across the passion of the piece without the dilution of the bland and often misguided visuals.

NOTES: Most of them involving the phrase ‘blind ignorance’.