Tag Archives: Film review

Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: When Elle Woods discovers that her dog Bruiser’s mother is a captive of V.E.R.S.A.C.E. – not the fashion label but an animal research lab – she sacrifices her lucrative lawyer’s job (and puts her dream wedding on hold) to go to Washington, in an attempt to put a halt to animal testing. Initially, Congress is unreceptive to her perky charms, but Ms Woods has a knack of finding useful friends in a crisis.

Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is a success story. She’s a popular lawyer with prospects of promotion in a Boston law firm, with a wedding – at Fenway Park, no less – to her beloved Emmett (Luke Wilson) on the cards. However, when she draws up the wedding list there are no guests for her even more beloved Chihuahua Bruiser (Moondoggie(!)); and the results of a private eye’s digging horrify her when she discovers that Bruiser’s mom is owned by a research laboratory, who won’t give her up.

Elle takes up the case but her law firm are less than sympathetic, replacing the promotion with the sack; but ever-resourceful, she calls on a favour with sorority sister, Congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field), to join her staff in Washington. Elle’s target is no less than to introduce Bruiser’s Bill, legislation that would put a stop to animal testing, but her bubbly, overwhelmingly pink approach to life comes against a brick wall in the form of Rudd’s by-the-book Chief of Staff Grace (Regina King).

Deflated by her lack of progress, Elle is buoyed by the friendship and advice of doorman Sid Post (Bob Newhart), who walks dogs and provides leads (sorry) to influential people in Washington, including Congresswoman Libby Hauser (Dana Ivey), who wears a Delta Nu ring; and Congressman Stanford Marks (Bruce McGill), who owns a rottweiler who prefers the company of male dogs such as Bruiser. With these new friends on board Elle looks set to make progress, but under pressure to make deals (and fighting for her own survival) Victoria withdraws her support, effectively killing the bill at the Committee stage. However, if Elle can get the signatures of 218 members, the bill can be directly heard in Congress; and her Delta Nu connections, plus Paulette’s tonsorial skills, all play their part in rocking the vote.

Legally Blonde – recapped under the opening credits for the memory deficient – was undoubtedly a confection, a spun sugar film with little but the brightness of Reese Witherspoon to give it any weight at all; so it’s a real shame that instead of continuing Elle’s learning process, the sequel has her regressing into her former state of effervescent ignorance to make her way in Washington. This wouldn’t be a problem if she had fun things to do, but by and large Elle’s days in Washington are less than exciting, filled as they are with the tiresome business of Washington politics, snap cups, meetings in hairdressers, chance meetings in the park and so on.

The reason for this is that the story is so weak, promoting a gimmick from the first film (ie. Bruiser) to the driving force behind Elle’s actions. And it just doesn’t work. Not only is Elle sillier (in a negative sense) than she ever was in the first film, but she, her friends, and the people she meets act in bizarre, entirely unbelievable ways to make sure Bruiser’s Bill makes progress: Libby Hauser turns from frumpy matron to giddy schoolgirl at the sight of a ring, while Stanford Marks’ hardline Republican is turned into an emotional wreck by the mere thought of his homosexual dog.

Newhart’s Sid is the cheapest of know-all devices (he’s been doorman/dog walker for thirty years, so is an expert on political manoeuvres and a Deep Throat to boot). And the idea that Elle’s friends Margot and Serena, heading a pack of cheerleading interns, would send Congressmen and Women fighting to sign the petition is simply ludicrous – the scene is toe-curlingly embarrassing. Moreover, when the film limply winds up with Elle’s winsome speech about ‘speaking up’, the animal rights agenda takes a back seat; and despite the accolade from the American Humane Association, what has Legally Blonde 2 actually done for the animal testing debate? Still going on, is it? Thought so. You could argue that the vacuous nature of the movie actually harms the issue (keeping dogs in handbags is good for them?), but Legally Blonde 2 isn’t substantial enough for anyone to take it seriously.

For all that – and the fact that Emmett is as much a non-character as ever, wedding or no wedding – and the fact that Jennifer Coolidge’s return as Paulette is crowd-pleasing nonsense – there are very occasional glimpses of a film which isn‘t terrible. Even if she has become stupid again, Witherspoon invests Elle with her usual likeability, and Newhart is always fabulous (I’ve loved him ever since The Rescuers). Also, Mary Lynn Rajskub wrings every ounce of comedy out of her small role as staffer Reena.

But the highlights (insert your own hairstyling pun here) are all too brief in a film that feels precisely like the rushed cash-in it is. That the original was turned into a musical is a bit surprising; that there’s a straight-to-video extension of the franchise, Legally Blondes, beggars belief. Do yourself a favour and stick to the original – or why not watch something a bit more taxing, like Miss Congeniality?!


Legally Blonde

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Perky blonde Elle Woods is pretty in pink, and knows everything about fashion; but that’s not enough for her boyfriend Warner who needs a serious partner to go through law school and help him to become a senator. Never one to take things lying down, Elle resolves to take herself, and her Chihuahua Bruiser, to Harvard to study law; but her sunny Beverly Hills ways mean that making friends – within the university, at least – is one of her toughest assignments.

In general, I dislike labelling films as being made for a particular market, since a children’s film can still delight adult audiences if it’s sufficiently well made. In the case of Legally Blonde I will admit defeat however, since Reese Witherspoon’s ‘Malibu Barbie’ come to life, Elle Woods (the creation of writer Amanda Brown) can never have been created with me (ie. a male, over 18) in mind. Nonetheless, the film is thankfully far less of a trial to watch than I might have feared.

Elle is the ‘It’ girl in her Los Angeles sorority house: popular, perky and the unquestioned authority on all things fashion, she also has the love of Warner Huntingdon III (Matthew Davis) and every expectation that he will pop the question before he goes off to Harvard. However, her world comes crashing down when Warner dumps Elle instead of proposing to her, claiming that he needs someone ‘serious’ by his side as he embarks on his campaign to be senator by the age of thirty.

Taking the rejection as an attack on her hair colour, Elle mounts her own campaign (much to the dismay of her fabulous parents) to get into law school, with the intention of proving to Warner that she is a worthy partner. A bikini-based video helps her get into Harvard, but getting there is the least of her troubles; not only does her pink furniture, dog-in-a-bag, and extraordinary fashion sense make her clash instantly with most of the geeky law students, but Warner is engaged to one of them, snotty, sullen brunette Vivian (Selma Blair).

The fact that the professors also think she is out of her depth doesn’t help matters, but Elle receives solace by helping out downtrodden nail technician Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge), and slowly gets up to speed with the law. She begins to think less about Warner, perhaps influenced by mysterious student (or is he?) Emmett (Luke Wilson), and is thrilled when she is chosen – with Warner, Vivian and Emmett – to help Professor Callahan (Victor Garber) defend Ali Larter’s widow from a murder charge; but her optimism is dented when Callahan makes a pass at her. Larter, outraged, puts Elle in charge of the case; but it’s surely unthinkable that such an inexperienced student can win the case when her main area of expertise is haircare.

There’s much to like about Legally Blonde, not least its positive messages that self-improvement shouldn’t necessarily be about getting a man back, and that you can be beautiful, blonde and brilliant. Witherspoon, as always, is great fun as Elle and she is backed up by a generally strong cast, the film bowling along perfectly pleasantly with a teen-friendly soundtrack and a number of amusing moments.

I wouldn’t, however, label anything in the film higher than ‘amusing’ and the lack of a single stand-out joke is disappointing, as it reinforces the predictable nature of the plot – Luke Wilson’s love interest, for example, is so mundane that it’s reduced to a bit-part in the epilogue’s captions. When the film does try to break out of its straitjacket it loses focus, with the ‘bend and snap’ interlude at the Nail Bar feeling like an out-take from Earth Girls are Easy; but I’m sure that none of this will particularly register with girls who are more likely to be interested in Ms Witherspoon’s forty hairstyles than the fact that her appearance at a party in a bunny outfit – whilst the other guests are normally-clothed – appears to be a direct lift from Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Legally Blonde is cute without ever threatening to be clever, and should be thankful that it has the undeniable star power of Reese Witherspoon to lift it out of mediocrity. It’s frothy, colourful fun that should encourage teenagers to believe they can achieve great things whilst still looking hot, but punters looking for an edgier slice of comedy would be well advised to pass over this film and especially its much inferior cash-in sequel for the subversive delights of Witherspoon and friends in Election.

Good Night, and Good Luck

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Following up a story that an air force serviceman has been discharged, without any evidence, for his supposed links to the Communist Party, CBS presenter Edward R Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly find themselves in the sights of the notorious McCarthy hearings. As the news team pursue the story, the scrutineers are closely scrutinised themselves and increasingly put under pressure by their jittery bosses.

Clooney spends a lot of time behind the camera (on-screen and off, if that makes sense) in his second film as a director, a wistful yet faithful cigarette smoke-filled tribute to the work of respected WWII radio broadcaster turned pioneering television news journalist Edward R Murrow. And he creates a beautiful-looking film, perfectly evoking in black and white the look and feel of the 1950s. Murrow (David Strathairn) hears of the case of Lt. Milo Ridulovich, ejected from the air force on the basis of the contents of a sealed envelope whose contents nobody will admit to seeing.

As the influence of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee spreads, Murrow uses the platform afforded to him by CBS show See It Now – a balance to interviewing celebrities such as Liberace on Person to Person – to gain attention to the machinations of McCarthy in trying to eliminate Communism from the face of America. His non-neutral position naturally makes the show’s sponsors, a down-to-earth aluminium business, and subsequently the station bosses, very nervous.

As Murrow’s broadcasts continue and McCarthy steps up his own accusations against the presenter before the Senator’s deceits are finally exposed, the film reflects the drama in the suicide of presenter Joe Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), who has been savaged by the press for his stance on the issue; and the secret marriage of Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr) to Shirley (Patricia Clarkson), CBS banning marriage within the organisation at the time.

It is in the drama of the piece that the film doesn’t quite deliver. Good Night, and Good Luck is brilliantly staged and ferociously intelligent, speaking through the time period to make a plea for honest and uncensored television journalism in a talent show/game show age, as well as rejecting the politics of fear; it also brings the McCarthy hearings to the audience in an accessible format. But it lacks the dramatic edge that would have breathed life into the film, instead choosing to break up the technical exercise of putting on a TV show with the device of a singer (Dianne Reeves) in an adjoining studio singing a relevant jazz number.

The film’s not boring, and I would rather it tell a plain story plainly than invent events merely to thrill the audience, but I am unsure whether the material would not have been better suited to a documentary consisting entirely of footage, considering how much is used in the film as it is.

This is no criticism of the actors. David Strathairn puts in an earnest, unflinching turn as Murrow, Downey Jr is sombre but amusing, and Frank Langella as weary station boss William Paley is also very good. Clooney himself takes a relatively minor role as Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly, but is a competent part of a strong ensemble cast. There is, however, a great sense of these men (and a few women) being enclosed in a very small world: even when they venture outside of the studio, it is only to a bar to smoke and catch the reviews of their programme.

There’s an awful lot of love and attention in Clooney’s work, and the story of Edward R Murrow’s crusade against the McCarthy hearings obviously means a lot to him, on both a political level and a personal one, his father having been a television news presenter. Unfortunately, I don’t have much more to say about Good Night, and Good Luck as a film, when I feel I probably should.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: History repeats itself for precocious youngster Kevin McCallister when his family leave for a Christmas holiday in Florida and he leaves for a solo trip to New York. Kevin finds the place to his liking but in addition to meeting a few new friends, he runs into some old enemies and makes some new ones too.

The sniffiest of film critics could hardly be unaware of Home Alone, if not because it’s the creation of Breakfast Club/Uncle Buck writer John Hughes, then because of young star Macauley Culkin’s Munch-like scream into his bathroom mirror as his Kevin McCallister discovers his family have gone on holiday without him. This time, the huge clan are off to Florida for a Christmas vacation, much to Kevin’s disapproval – he prefers Christmas trees to palm trees – and while they all get to the airport this time, the family’s mad rush to get on the plane, coupled with Kevin’s insistence on changing the batteries on his voice recorder, mean that he follows someone who looks like his father onto a flight to New York whilst everyone else heads South.

For any other ten year-old this would be a catastrophe, but since Kevin is an intuitive genius with an adult’s vocabulary and sensibility, he calmly checks into the Plaza Hotel, under the beady scrutiny of concierge (Tim Curry) and his goofy porter Cedric (Rob Schneider), where he proceeds to watch videos and eat ice cream before taking a trip around the city. However, on a trip to a toy store run by philanthropic Mr Duncan (Eddie Bracken), Kevin runs into his nemeses, incompetent bandits Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern); or should that be Marv and Harry run into their nemesis?

Whatever, the pair hatch a plan to rob the toy store of the hundreds of thousands of dollars destined for a children’s hospital (aah!). Despite Kevin’s fear of the robbers, he’s outwitted them before, and the toy shop isn’t going to be turned over whilst he’s around. Setting up his uncle’s mid-renovation townhouse as a trap, Kevin photographs the pair mid-robbery and lures them into the house, where they endure various extremely painful mishaps. Kevin’s family, meanwhile, have flown to New York from their miserable Floridian break and his mother (Catherine O’Hara) sets off in a desperate search for her son.

Chris Columbus is a past master at this sort of film, and uses Culkin’s talent well to portray a resourceful kid’s combination of joy and trepidation at being alone in the city. And, let’s face it, what’s not to like about New York at Christmas, especially when it has huge toy shops? Furthermore, he creates a playful, almost cartoonish atmosphere in which actors like Curry, Pesci and Stern endure humiliations and violent injuries (bricks to the head and electrocution are the least of it) but can still get up again – the sequence in which Kevin rigs up the house and the robbers get a good quarter-hour of Tom and Jerry-style beating is particularly impressive.

The voice recorder is a nice device to get Kevin out of trouble too, even if moving figures behind a screen is rather over-familiar from the first film. On the downside, Columbus is prone to pouring on the schmaltz, as evidenced by Mr Duncan (in his soppy ‘turtle doves’ speech) and even more by Brenda Fricker’s strange Central Park bird lady. Though initially terrifying, she turns out to be a gentle, lonely old soul who benefits from Kevin’s preternatural wisdom and manages to return some of her own. The exchanges between Fricker and Culkin are pretty tiresome but are presumably meant to help us love Kevin that bit more and provide a break between action sequences; personally, I would gladly have seen five more minutes of the robbers being hit on the head with heavy things.

We can be thankful that O’Hara’s performance accentuates the comedy and is not too saccharine about the love between mothers, sons and the true meaning of Christmas.

Home Alone 2 is at heart a children’s film, and children will enjoy this most, but John Hughes’ skill has always been in crafting family films with something for everyone, even if it is only the joy of the Big Apple twinkling or famous names getting their comeuppance at the hands of a big-eared boy. It’s a light and fluffy confection, although at times it can be a bit sugary for even the most sweet-toothed of moviegoers.


WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Disgraced former US President Richard Nixon wants a platform to redeem himself. Ambitious TV presenter David Frost wants a heavyweight project to raise his profile after hosting banal chat shows in Australia. There can only be one winner in the battle of minds, and Frost gets informed people on his side; but with Nixon being such a consummate politician, surely the Englishman won’t land a telling blow on the one-time Leader of the Free World?

On August 8, 1974, US President Richard Nixon (played here by Frank Langella) resigns from the post, his position made untenable by the repercussions of the previous year’s Watergate scandal. He’s pardoned by incoming President Gerald Ford, and earns over $2 million for his memoirs; but he still feels the need to explain himself to the American public, who see him as something of a monster.

Offers for TV interviews come in, but the most attractive – and lucrative – comes from one David Frost (Michael Sheen), last seen cosying up to celebrities Down Under. Figuring that Frost is a lightweight, Nixon and his advisors (including loyal Chief of Staff Jack Brennan, played by Kevin Bacon) agree to a series of four interviews, each dealing with different topics. Frost travels to America, picking up budding journalist Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) on the way, and together with editor John Birt (Matthew MacFadyen) assembles an investigative team of ABC News producer Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and sceptical journalist Jim Reston (Sam Rockwell).

Throughout, Frost flirts with disaster, struggling to get the networks interested and only raising a tiny percentage of the funds he needs, seemingly more interested in partying than in getting the hard work done; and when Nixon breezes effortlessly through the first three interviews, personal and financial disaster beckon. However, Nixon ill-advisedly makes a drunken phone call to Frost and the latter knuckles down, helped immeasurably when Reston digs up a smoking gun from the Watergate papers. When the final interview, on the subject of Watergate, comes round in April 1977, Frost is armed, Nixon is suddenly defenceless, and the rest is television history.

Depending on your age, nationality, and interest in such things, you may think of David Frost as the man who took undue credit for the TV satire boom of the 60s, with That Was The Week That Was and so on (Peter Cook: ‘My greatest regret in life is saving David Frost from drowning’); smarmy rent-a-face presenter of specials such as the Guinness Book of World Records; or ageing self-caricature on cosy panel show Through the Keyhole.

You almost definitely won’t think of him as a hero of American political journalism, however, so it is much to the credit of the filmmakers (especially Peter Morgan, adapting his own play) that Frost becomes – not a hero, exactly – but a worthy protagonist. Frost/Nixon is set up explicitly as a duel or boxing match, with each fighter having their own strengths and weaknesses, backed up by their seconds as they prepare for each round of interviews. If Frost is initially undone by his easy-going nature, Nixon is undone by his egotism, believing that his inquisitor has nothing else to offer, that his intellectual superiority and statesmanlike appearance will restore him in the eyes of the American people. You can imagine the crackling tension of the piece as a stage play, as Nixon over-reaches himself with the famous phrase “When the president does it…it’s not illegal.”

Ron Howard brings events to the screen in some style, reconstructing period details well and keeping a clear handle on how the plot is progressing. He’s lucky to have two quite brilliant actors in Sheen and Langella (the original leads from the play), who embody Frost and Nixon and go much deeper than simple impersonations. Sheen’s outward confidence is betrayed by a hundred insecure glances, whilst Langella’s complex characterisation is always fascinating, topped off by his revealing (though, as it turns out, completely fictitious) phone call to Frost. There are also smart turns from Platt, Rockwell, Bacon – unflaggingly loyal to his former boss – and Toby Jones, typically quirky as Nixon’s PR advisor Swifty Lazar.

The film’s not a runaway success story, though. Maybe it’s because I can’t forgive his bunged-up turn in Pride and Prejudice, or because I know he looks nothing like John Birt, but I found Matthew MacFadyen’s performance perfectly tedious. Worse, I had no idea what Rebecca Hall’s character was doing in the film, other than to break up the monotony of badly-coiffed male faces. Howard also has some of the characters give retrospective opinions, which doesn’t work at all: when were these ’interviews’ given, and to whom? These fake talking heads remove us from the drama of the moment and make us realise that we’re watching an artifice.

This could explain why Frost/Nixon didn’t engage me completely. Some of the tension does transfer from the stage production, and probably does so better on a cinema screen than TV, but you want – at least, I wanted – to feel that the film had something bigger to say, a theme which went beyond the specifics of Frost and Nixon‘s meetings. While parallels with more recent Presidential liberties (and illegal foreign incursions) do hover around the margins, I was disappointed that Frost/Nixon remained essentially a tale of two men at a specific time and nothing more. I last watched Oliver Stone’s Nixon a considerable time ago, but from what I remember it was a much bolder, more expansive movie, however much the end result wasn’t particularly successful. Another example is Thirteen Days, which conveyed the tension of politics on a much, much bigger scale.

This is not to do Frost/Nixon down. It’s an enjoyable, intelligent film with a number of top-notch performances, serving as a solid, thoughtful reconstruction of a moment of media history. It deserves a viewing, but you may well feel you could have learnt most of what you needed to know from the interviews themselves.

Donkey Punch

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Three young women appear to find their ideal holiday partners amongst four lads looking after a luxurious boat moored in Mallorca, Spain. However, their drink and drug-fuelled night of fun takes a sinister turn when one of the girls is accidentally killed, leading to a chain of events that decimates the group until only one survives.

Young adults keen to have an exciting holiday abroad but still reliant on their parents’ money/consent would do well to keep the folks away from Donkey Punch. For one thing, they’ll ask what a donkey punch is and won’t necessarily like the answer (in sex ‘play’, it’s a blow on the back of the woman’s neck designed to heighten the man’s orgasm); for another, they’ll block that holiday or insist on a chastity belt before you’re allowed anywhere near the sun.

Tammi (Nichola Burley), Kim (Jaime Winstone) and Lisa (Sian Breckin) are the three young ladies looking for a good time in Mallorca, although Tammi’s just getting over a relationship and is wary when the others charge into the company of a group of lads: cocky Marcus (Jay Taylor), drug dealer Bluey (Tom Burke) and Josh (Julian Morris), the shy, clever one. The boys are all sailors in charge of a luxury boat and the girls are lured on board, Tammi overcoming her misgivings when she meets Josh’s handsome brother Sean (Robert Boulter).

Sailing into open waters in order to party as hard as possible, Bluey brings out his best drugs and the group – minus Sean and Tammi – go down below into the master bedroom in order to get to know each other better. Tragedy strikes when Josh kills Lisa with the titular blow, the incident filmed on an incriminating videotape, forcing the men into a hurriedly-arranged plot to cover up the death and causing the women to fear for their lives; with good reason, as it turns out, since Lisa’s death is far from the only one on board the boat during a long, uncomfortable night for all concerned.

To maintain a bit of suspense for those who haven’t seen the film, I won’t go into any more detail than that, although as I will discuss in a moment it doesn’t really make a great deal of difference who lives and who dies. Suffice to say that there are some things that Donkey Punch does well: it’s shot on digital film, which makes the opening of the movie glisten as the sun bounces off healthy young bodies and lights up clear blue seas. The important sex scene is effectively shot too, undoubtedly titillating without being pointlessly prurient; and when the film becomes darker, Olly Blackburn effectively recreates all manner of grisly deaths. The film is bloody, gruesome and definitely not for the squeamish; or prudish, as the film contains very strong language.

All this said, Donkey Punch is missing the one ingredient that the title appears to promise: an emotional punch. While the ambient music and laid back atmosphere suits the opening ‘happy’ scenes very well, the film fails to shift up a gear when events begin to go wrong; and instead of becoming a visceral, tense movie where one or more of the boys chases one or more of the girls round the confines of the yacht (do they stand and fight? Do they brave the unknown waters?), Donkey Punch is content to remain curiously quiet and still, throwing in legal technicalities about who’s liable for Lisa’s death when it should really be assaulting the senses with screaming and panic.

I don’t remember much about Dead Calm, but I do remember it had atmosphere; and although at least one of Donkey Punch’s cast is revealed to be vaguely psychopathic, it’s in a very English, low-key way, totally unbefitting to the events that unfold. In large part the lack of excitement must be put down to Blackburn and his script written with David Bloom; but the fact that they have created six pretty but faceless characters – Bluey is distinctive just for being so unpleasant – is exaggerated by the pretty but instantly forgettable actors playing them. I suppose I was quite glad that someone lived, but at no point did I come to empathise with any of the characters remotely enough to want a specific individual to survive.

Essentially, Donkey Punch is a film with a provocative title and a bright start but ultimately precious little else to recommend it, wasting a decent (if very unlikely) set-up with a bunch of flat performances and failing to display momentum or anything you might even consider calling frightening. Like most teases, it flatters to deceive, revealing itself – the more you see – to be not a crushing bore, exactly, but nowhere near as sexy as it thinks it is.

Inside Job

WFTB Score: 17/20

The plot: Filmmaker Charles Ferguson dissects the reasons behind the financial collapse of 2008 and wonders why those who caused it got to walk away with millions of dollars in ‘compensation’.

At the start of 2012, there can be little argument that the major Western economies of the world are in a bit of a mess, thanks (if that’s the word) in no small part to the credit crunch of 2008. But why did the financial catastrophe happen? And what – or who – caused it?

Inside Job, narrated calmly and persuasively by Matt Damon, explains what happened by speaking to many of the people who were closest to the action (and shaming those who declined to be interviewed). Beginning with Iceland, a tiny economy which exploded, then imploded, after being bitten by the banking bug, the film gives a potted history of how we got where we are.

In particular, it details how the appointment of Merrill Lynch bigwig Donald Regan as Ronald Reagan’s Treasury Secretary in 1981 sparked a massive deregulation of the banking industry, in America and elsewhere; for the first time, savings banks were allowed to use their depositors’ money for investment purposes, and the potential for massive bonuses drove bankers to take ever greater risks in the pursuit of profit.

New financial instruments were invented, such as packages of increasingly risky ‘sub-prime’ mortgages rolled into Collateralized Debt Obligations, which credit ratings agencies were persuaded (read ‘paid’) to rate as safe so that investors would buy, even though the bankers selling them knew they were rubbish. At the same time, insurance groups (specifically AIG) would guarantee against losses they had no hope of covering if the worst happened. Dissenting voices on the sidelines went unheard amid the clamour for cash and good times; but the bubble had to burst, and when it did the banks were considered ‘too big to fail’, requiring governments around the world to prop them up with taxpayers’ money, leading to cuts, unemployment and misery for millions.

Meanwhile, the men who brought their companies – and often countries – to their knees kept their millions and their cushy lifestyles, the former bankers stayed in powerful political positions, and dozens of criminal, fraudulent acts went unpunished.

If you’re one of those people who look upon the Occupy Wall St./St Paul’s/etc, movements with a sneer and ask ‘Why don’t these people get a job/life/can of deodorant?’, Inside Job may provide you with some answers. The sheer scale of the greed and malfeasance exhibited is literally jaw-dropping, from the fact that banks were allowed to leverage themselves to an insane degree to the fact that Congress were persuaded to pass a law banning the regulation of trading in CDOs.

The influence of banks, lobbying groups and ex-banking men over America’s fiscal policymaking is shown to be a corruption of what governments are for, namely to protect the public against vested interests (not vice versa). Inside Job makes its case superbly, making complex economic ideas easy to understand via graphs and colour-coded diagrams without ever patronising its audience, asking difficult questions of its interviewees, and making superb use of footage from Congressional Hearings to skewer the CEOs and VPs who refused to be interviewed.

The obvious point of comparison for Inside Job is Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, and there are significant overlaps between the points the two films are making. But each takes an entirely different approach: Moore’s film is a broad assessment of America’s ills, which manipulates the emotions by showing us America’s oppressed workers; Inside Job is a cold, focused laser beam of interrogation about the financial meltdown, Ferguson the (unidentified) interviewer placing the focus entirely on the respondents’ answers or, significantly, the avoidance of answers.

Aside from the impressive roster of interviewees – Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Christine Lagarde – there are spiky discussions with academics about papers they wrote on the subject of, for example, the supposed stability of Iceland’s economy, without declaring who paid them or considering whether being paid could result in the slightest conflict of interest. Admittedly, Inside Job also features a few snippets from the disenfranchised, the unemployed, the people reduced to living in tents, but this only proves that the financial crisis has victims everywhere – except, of course, at the financial institutions, where the likes of Countrywide Finance’s Angelo Mozilo got to keep nearly all of his $470 million fortune from selling sub-prime mortgages.

The only false note you might point to is the prurient and moralistic exploration of Wall Street’s predilection for strip joints, prostitutes and cocaine, which further boosted the egos of the bankers as they went on their merry way. However, it’s not done to show that the men were devoid of morals or intrinsically sinful: unbelievably, their financial recklessness went as far as charging hookers as a business expense. And there you were thinking American Psycho was a far-fetched satire…

For the most part, film is an essentially escapist media, the cinema somewhere you go to forget the news. However, when a documentary gets things right, it can make a difference to your thought processes and perceptions in ways no blockbuster can ever achieve. For example, the next time you hear the names Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s or Fitch, you will almost certainly ask why the hell are ‘we’ allowing our economic futures to be decided by the incontrovertible diktats of the faceless credit ratings agencies, when their ‘opinions’ were – if not corrupt – at the very least hopelessly incompetent? And this is the triumph of Inside Job: whereas Moore’s very good film ends with a rabble-rousing exhortation for people to take action, Ferguson’s superb work, by simple statement of outrageous facts, provides enough ammunition to send any sensible viewer into an apoplectic – and entirely justified – rage.