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Iron Man

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Weapons manufacturer Tony Stark nearly becomes the victim of his own products on a visit to Afghanistan, though the life-saving equipment he makes to effect his escape gives him a new purpose in life. Back in America, his decision to cease weapons manufacture comes as a nasty surprise to Stark’s business partner Obadiah Stane, while Stark’s lovelorn assistant Pepper Potts just wants to keep him safe. Tony, meanwhile, is preoccupied with perfecting his natty new suit.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the archetypal playboy billionaire, dividing his time between living the high life and designing and selling Stark Industries munitions with his partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), friend of Tony’s late father. However, a jolly to Afghanistan to demonstrate the devastating power of the new Jericho missile takes a terrible turn when his convoy is hit and he’s kidnapped, close to death, by rebel forces. The attentions of fellow detainee Yinsen (Shaun Toub) save Stark’s life by attaching a car battery to his heart, a situation Stark improves upon by using his own arc reactor technology; and when his captors, led by Faran Tahir’s Raza, demand that he build them a Jericho, he instead devotes his time to making a weaponised, flying suit which he uses to escape.

The experience convinces Stark that his company should stop making armaments, an announcement which alarms Stane and Stark’s Marine buddy Rhodey (Terrence Howard) enormously, while Tony’s PA Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is just glad to have her boss home. With the help of well-spoken computer Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany), Stark works on his ‘iron man’ suit and uses it to right wrongs in Afghanistan, though the real enemy may be lurking closer to home.

I’ve tried to watch Iron Man on a couple of previous occasions and really struggled with it, though I couldn’t define exactly what it was that bothered me. Having now paid attention throughout, I think I know what the feeling was: déjà vu. Not for this film specifically, you understand, but for most of the things that happen in it. For while it’s slightly unfair on Jon Favreau’s movie, its release after both Batman Begins and Transformers has to invite comparisons: like Batman, our hero is a wealthy industrialist with a secret identity; and like Transformers (though more specifically, the later Revenge of the Fallen), the film gets very excited about military hardware and the explosive power of clashing metals and detonating missiles.

Furthermore, I’m uneasy with actual wars being used as backdrops in movies which don’t have anything to say about the conflicts, and while the picture regarding the Taliban-like Afghans isn’t quite as clear-cut as it might first appear, the film is still quite happy to depict them as brutal, incompetent and entirely disposable.

This also impacts on our view of Tony Stark. We’re clearly meant to like him, but whatever epiphany Stark has following his ordeals, it doesn’t turn him into an instantly relatable comic-book hero. It remains hard to tell whether he’s on anyone’s side bar his own, since he’s hardly a friend to the military or to the plebeian population – you wouldn’t call Iron Man to rescue your cat from up a tree.

On the other hand, Stark’s ambiguity is filtered quite brilliantly through Robert Downey Jr.’s performance; the actor has had an extraordinary life and has frequently looked likely to squander his talents in spectacular fashion, but here he hits pay dirt with a performance that is in part glib surface and mumbled quips, but also contains a determination and depth of feeling that distinguishes Stark from most superheroes. He’s the heart of Iron Man in a way that Bale patently isn’t in Chris Nolan’s Batman films. In particular, Downey forges a strong relationship with Paltrow, who is effective if unexciting (sorry Gwynnie). Jeff Bridges, disarmingly bald, proves he can act any way he’s asked, while Terrence Howard apparently isn’t Cuba Gooding Jr*; he is adequate, though nothing more.

I wouldn’t disparage Iron Man as a piece of film-making. It’s longish but carefully paced, and the action set-pieces are put together with considerable skill, the effects used to good effect to give a clear steer on what’s happening. I gather, too, that there’s a decent amount of fan service given by the various iterations of the Iron Man suit as it’s coming together – Tony’s test runs are livened up with some smart physical comedy. The problem is that the tests are also the venue for a massively signposted plot point, and although I understand that this is how these movies work, I would have liked some originality from at least one of the four writers. Sadly, formula appears to be king, right down to the cute but by-now hackneyed Stan Lee cameo.

I suppose the one word I’d use to describe Iron Man is ‘competent’. That’s really not bad going, when there are plenty of comic-book movies that don’t work at all: Elektra, say, or The Green Hornet (which, on the evidence of the first half hour at least, is clearly miscast and tonally all over the place). However, if the word also implies a lack of excitement, that’s not entirely accidental. Downey Jr. does what he can to make the lead role fresh and funny, but this adaptation is hamstrung by its slavery to comic book convention.

NOTES: This isn’t remotely a race thing; I simply wasn’t aware that Terrence Howard existed and assumed he was Cuba. I made exactly the same mistake with Elaine Hendrix, who isn’t Missi Pyle, when watching The Parent Trap.

Also to note (in late 2018) that this review was written in the innocent days of 2013, when Cinematic Universes were barely even a thing. I have signally failed to keep up with events since and am unlikely to do so in the next 10 years.

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Nanny McPhee

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Nanny McPhee sweeps into the chaotic house of widow Cedric Brown and his seven children and immediately sets about casting her spell over the unruly brood. She had better work her magic quickly, however; Cedric’s Aunt Adelaide demands that he remarry within the month, or the whole family will be cut off without a penny.

Life’s hard for undertaker Cedric Brown (Colin Firth). His wife having died shortly after the birth of seventh child Agatha, his days are more than full trying to earn a crust while the kids run riot, although he still relies on the financial support of short-sighted Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury). When the children see off their seventeenth nanny, Cedric and his limited staff of cook Mrs Blatherwick (Imelda Staunton) and maid Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald) are in no position to cope; so Cedric is mightily relieved when ‘Government Nanny’ McPhee (Emma Thompson) pitches up with a host of facial disfigurements, a stern way with words, and a magical stick.

Under the rebellious leadership of elder child Simon (Thomas Sangster), the kids resist the new nanny’s discipline, only to find that doing what they want mysteriously gets them into terrible trouble. There’s bigger trouble still on the horizon: firstly, Adelaide desires to take a child under her own wing; and even if that plan can be thwarted, Cedric still needs to remarry or the family will be left destitute and destined to be broken up. Surely there’s a more eligible woman than Celia Imrie’s frightful Mrs Quickly?

Were one feeling spectacularly grouchy, one could just about muster a charge sheet against Nanny McPhee. The most damning indictment is that McPhee (based on Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda) is undoubtedly a close cousin of P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. Perhaps aware of this, the film plays up McPhee as a negative image of Poppins, at least in appearance; it may also have been a conscious decision not to include any songs, a correct decision whether intended or not.

Another charge is that anyone with an appreciation of – well, fiction, to be frank – will know which way the wind eventually blows the second Evangeline appears; again, guilty, but such is the way with fairytales. Others will recoil at the vivid colour scheme, which recalls pantomime sets, especially when Mrs Quickly bustles into town with her gaudy outfits (for the kids too!) and tips the movie into an excess of noise, colour and mess. There’s even a sense that director Kirk Jones is aiming for a Tim Burton vibe, a feeling strengthened by Patrick Doyle’s Elfman-like and occasionally intrusive score. The vibe doesn’t really pay off, and neither do the special effects: the friendly donkey earmarked to stand in for one of the children looks weird and brings Shrek to mind, not to this movie’s advantage.

All the above is true. Nanny McPhee is broadly pantomimic in style and obviously derived from Mary Poppins, paying direct homage to it at times (kites, anyone?). However, it’s also an utterly charming fairy tale in its own right, infused with a genuine sense of wonder and magic; the humour, colour and fantasy of the movie offers much for the young and young at heart alike, standing in stark contrast to dowdy, sensible tales such as Ever After. Emma Thompson, as screenwriter, knows when to lay on the humour and when to darken the tone, so the movie moves along with the rowdy children’s exuberance, the underlying sadness of the departed wife, and the impending threat of disaster all at once, without ever flagging.

The final scenes, with their pure white motif, recall Shrek in a positive way and can’t help but pull on all but the most cynical hearts; what’s more, McPhee’s five lessons are reminders that good manners, instilled properly, are key to good communication and harmonious co-existence, deftly capturing the zeitgeist of contemporary TV show Supernanny. And there are welcome stings of entirely inappropriate comedy: Cedric is hilariously cheerful about a bout of influenza that boosts his trade; and when was the last time you heard the word ‘incest’ in a kid’s film, let alone delivered in the manner of Edith Evans’ Lady Bracknell?

More than the writing, the film is truly distinguished by the quality of its acting. Thompson is wonderful, expressing her emotions with short grunts, sharp movements and expressive looks which cut straight through the make-up; thankfully, there’s no hint of an explanation of McPhee’s origins or why her appearance changes after each lesson is learnt – the visual metaphor is allowed to stand for itself. Firth’s highly-strung performance is funny, but he also makes you feel his predicament, while hardly anything needs be said about Angela Lansbury other than that she’s every bit as professional as you’d expect.

Macdonald has a sublime capacity to become whatever she needs to be: touching as a lowly scullery maid, she also makes for a lovely lay-dee, even with food on her face. Much credit should also be given to Sangster, who cements his promise from Love, Actually with a performance full of nuanced emotions. The other children, too, are much more palatable than movie kids have a right to be, though I could have done without words being put into the mouths of babes. If you have refined tastes, the combined larking of Staunton, Imrie and Patrick Barlow and Derek Jacobi as Cedric’s unbelievably camp parlour assistants might come over as overkill; personally, I enjoyed their pantomime turns, Imrie in particular playing up the wicked stepmother to great effect.

Nanny McPhee is, when push comes to shove, a children’s film, and it would be silly to say that it offers adults the same sweet treats it gives to children. That said, it is a great children’s film, which deserves to become as well established a classic as Disney’s practically perfect progenitor.

James and the Giant Peach

WFTB Score: 10/20

The plot: Miserable orphan James Trotter struggles under the cruel regime of his vicious aunts Spiker and Sponge, until a chance meeting with a mysterious stranger results in an enormous peach growing outside the house. As James finds out, the peach isn’t the only thing that has grown to an enormous size, and – with the huge fruit as a craft – he and an unusual gang of insect friends set off for high adventure on their way (they hope) to New York.

Although it’s many, many, many (ok, that’s enough manys) years now since I last read a Roald Dahl book, I have read quite a bit of his output. From Danny the Champion of the World to Matilda, from The BFG to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there are sustained themes of children suffering loneliness, poverty and cruelty, but leavened by fantastical escapes, wonderful adventures and (of course) happy endings. All of this and more is true of James and the Giant Peach.

Young James (Paul Terry) has his idyllic childhood shattered when a rhinoceros dispatches his loving parents, leaving him in the ‘care’ of his vicious, selfish Aunts Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes). These dreadful women feed him on fish heads and use him as a general lackey, so it’s little wonder that stranger Pete Postlethwaite knows the poor boy is miserable.

James spills the man’s gift of a bag of magical crocodile tongues, but they do their work on a withered peach tree and – as James finds out when he crawls inside the gigantic fruit that blossoms – a number of surrounding insects: a wise grasshopper (voiced by Simon Callow), a tough-talking centipede (Richard Dreyfuss), a matronly ladybird/bug (Jane Leeves), a nervous worm (David Thewlis), a spider fatale (Susan Sarandon) and an elderly glow-worm (Margbolyes). The peach tumbles off the tree and lands in the sea, where the crew set about finding a way to get to James’ dream city of New York. But as they are to discover, navigating a giant peach across the Atlantic is no ordinary task and they encounter extraordinary dangers. James hasn‘t necessarily finished with his horrible aunts, either.

Assuming you’ve seen it (naturally), the film that should immediately spring to mind when watching James… is Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, not least because Jack Skellington (or a very close relative) is the main villain of the film’s central animated section. And you can tell that the director’s passion is very firmly focused on the stop-motion animation, since almost everything that’s good about the film is to be found in the middle. The movement of James (turned into a big-headed mannequin) and the creatures is fast and fluid, and although their characteristics are far from cute they are striking and effective. The exciting action sequences are interspersed with heart-warming homilies, wherein James’ good nature earns him friendship and respect from his new-found peachmates.

All of which makes you wonder why Selick didn’t have the courage to make the whole film as an animation. Because, sad to say, the live-action opening (around twenty minutes or so in length) almost kills the film stone dead, notwithstanding the best efforts of Lumley and Margolyes in their all-too-convincing hideousness. Young Paul Terry is unfortunately not the most instantly engaging actor, and just when you’re pleading for the big-peach adventure to get going, he strikes up with a poorly-sung rendition of a maudlin Randy Newman song (there are better ones, though none match up to those in Toy Story or its sequel).

Add in the altogether odd interlude of James’ dream sequence, where (in paper animation) he becomes a hungry caterpillar chased by familiar demons, and what you end up with is a film that threatens to be rather dark and complex for younger children, and with too many longueurs for older viewers.

More than any of this, perhaps, is the difficulty faced by many attempts to turn children’s literature into a successful movie: nothing, not even Quentin Blake’s charming illustrations, can compare to the imagination of an active mind; and while the animated parts of James and the Giant Peach are technically successful, the story doesn’t deliver as a whole, whether or not you’ve got your own ideas about how everyone and everything should look. Assuming you can keep them interested for the humdrum start, this film will keep little ones fairly entertained, but it rarely inspires the wonder Dahl‘s words could so easily conjure. That said, I’d still like to see someone have a go at The Great Glass Elevator, just to see Selick, Burton or anyone have a go at Vermicious Knids and Minusland.

Naked Souls

WFTB Score: 2/20

The plot: Brilliant but broke scientist Ed is made an offer he can’t refuse by wealthy but fading Everett Longstreet: assume his identity, and he’ll gain access to money plus the vital missing element to his goal of capturing other people’s memories. Unfortunately, not only does the research take Ed away from neglected artist girlfriend Britt; some of Ed’s prior research on a serial killer starts to leak into ‘his’ daily life, with shocking results.

Edward (Brian Krause) is a frustrated man. He may be a brilliant scientist, but his research into reclaiming the memories of the dead – including seedy murders committed by Travis Mitchell – are too far out for his university faculty, despite having a good relationship with concerned professor (Dean Stockwell). What’s more, Ed’s spending so much time at work that his girlfriend Britt (Pamela Anderson) is being tapped up by friend Jerry (Clayton Rohner).

Britt’s concerned when Edward is befriended by Dr Everett Longstreet (David Warner), an eminent scientist with a sharp mind but a failing body. Ed, however, is intrigued by Longstreet’s offer to sign over his riches on condition that the young man agrees to be known by the older man’s name; and a demonstration of memory transference via mystical smoke convinces Ed to stay in his benefactor’s house to further his work.

Despite a welcome visit from Britt, Ed’s increasingly disturbed by visions, not only of Mitchell’s killings but also Amelia (Justina Vail), the love of Everett’s life. Longstreet puts his plan into action, swapping bodies with Ed and poisoning his old body, though ‘Ed’ manages to call for help. In his new body, ‘Longstreet’ heads for Britt’s place to take advantage of his new lease of life, but he’s handicapped by a murderous rage that he’s unwittingly inherited.

I really should apologise for watching utter tripe such as Naked Souls when there are tens of thousands of more intelligent, worthy, funny, exciting or simply better films out there; but as I like to say, you can’t truly appreciate the very best films without knowing what’s at the other end of the scale. So consider Naked Souls as a sort of calibration device, an example of what movies are like without the application of any money, talent or imagination.

Actually, to be entirely fair, it’s not entirely without imagination, though it’s mainly a case of dreaming up an adult version of body-swap comedies such as Freaky Friday in combination with the technological bent of The Fly, via some plot-advancing nonsense concerning shamanic smoke. And there must have been some money spent to get Ms Anderson in the picture, though she’s hardly an ever-present.

What can be said with confidence is that there’s a complete lack of talent in Naked Souls. Anderson, unfortunately, is every bit as vacuous as her appearance suggests; Krause does angsty and angry with typical B-movie hyperbole; Warner (reprising, after a fashion, his role in The Man with Two Brains) barely rolls out of neutral, and Stockwell is barely in the film long enough to charge for a full day’s work.

Neither is there much evidence of film-making flair behind the camera, though it’s clear that the main concern was to make sure Naked Souls lived up to its name. It’s as though there was a stipulation that someone had to be nude in pretty much every shot: if it’s not Pammy, it’s Justina, or one of Mitchell’s nude victims in flashback, or one of Britt’s nude models (handy that!).

The trouble is, there’s so little, er, meat to the movie that it starts chasing its own tale at a very early stage. If you see Travis Mitchell’s lady-slaying memories once, you see them a thousand times; and while the same isn’t quite true of Ms Anderson’s mammaries, her single, low-impact lovemaking scene is more or less given a full reprise, I presume to save wear and tear on videotapes. What you don’t see at any stage is anything approaching rounded characters, genuine drama or anything to get you interested in 85 long minutes.

I’m aware that my low-scoring verdicts on this, Showgirls, Caligula and the almost-as-bad Anderson vehicle Barb Wire share a common thread, to a greater or lesser extent, of female nudity. That doesn’t mean I’m against it per se; indeed, when it’s done well (Vixen!, say, or in another context entirely, The Reader) nudity (for either sex) can serve any number of purposes. Hell, it even serves a purpose here: Pammy is undeniably sexy, Justina Vail comely; and as long as you ask nothing more from a film, Naked Souls will see you right. However, the movie as a whole is cheap, poorly performed, mind-numbingly repetitive and – worst of all – as unforgivably lifeless as the corpse Edward prods for memories.

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: While resting at the home of Leonato, friends Claudio and Benedick find their respective heartstrings tugged by innocent young Hero and sharp-tongued Beatrice. The party decide to have fun by sneakily inducing the quarrelsome Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love, and at least one marriage appears to be in the offing; the black-hearted Don John, however, has other ideas.

Everyone needs their downtime, so when a cadre of sharp-suited businessmen are offered respite at the home of Senor Leonato (Clark Gregg) they jump at the chance, though some are happier than others. Claudio (Fran Kranz) is enamoured of Leonato’s receptive daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), while self-loving Benedick (Alexis Denisof) is less happy to see Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker), a former lover who now protects herself with verbal barbs.

Surly Don John (Sean Maher), meanwhile, hates everyone and everything, and whispers poison in Claudio’s ear suggesting that Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) is wooing Hero for himself while pretending to bat for the young man. Claudio overcomes those qualms and prepares for his wedding by conspiring with Leonato and Pedro to convince Benedick that Beatrice loves her, while Hero and others do the same for Beatrice.

It all appears to work like a charm, but John’s Plan B – deceiving Claudio into watching ‘Hero’ (actually Ashley Johnson’s maid Margaret) be defiled by Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) – throws a monumental spanner in the works and the household into disarray. Can local lawman Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) save the day? Not if his command of the English language is anything to go by.

Joss Whedon made Much Ado About Nothing, on a budget of about nothing, in twelve days while ‘resting’ from work on The Avengers. The important question is not so much ‘does it show?’ as ‘does it matter?’ and the answer, to put it very unshakespeareanly, is ‘kinda’.

In its early stages, at least, the film treads a very fine line between being spontaneous and undercooked. The decision to shoot in black and white is wise, as it prevents the film from looking too much like Joss and his mates in a home video (yes, that’s his actual house). On the other hand, until roughly the halfway mark – specifically, until Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into mutual love – the film doesn’t quite find its feet.

This opinion partially stems from a familiarity with and fondness for Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado…, but Whedon’s version – which must be applauded for sticking to the original text – occasionally struggles for context where the 1993 movie had no such issue. We instinctively understood that Branagh, Denzel Washington et al were returning from a war; it’s not half as clear what battles these sartorially superior warriors have fought. Additionally, you’re entitled to ask why these well-heeled fellows are choosing to stay in someone else’s house for a month, or, given that some of the bedrooms evidently belong to kids, where all the children have gone.

Unlike the middling results Baz Luhrmann achieved in Romeo+Juliet, Whedon doesn’t attempt to crowbar Shakespeare’s words into meaningfulness in a modern setting. On the other hand, skating blithely over the snags doesn’t particularly help the viewer – or, one suspects, the actors – get a handle on the characters. As a result, the significance of John’s first attempt to ruin the party is somewhat lost because we’re still getting used to the relationships in play.

Still, once players and punters are both settled in, Much Ado About Nothing offers a snappy and fresh interpretation of the text, not merely capitalising on its many opportunities for banter and slapstick. We feel the cruelty of weak-minded Claudio’s treatment of Hero; we sympathise with Beatrice’s complaints about the limitations imposed by womanhood. To say that I prefer the sparks that fly from Ken and Em’s frictional spats is no criticism of either Acker or Denisof, who bring their own qualities to Benedick’s awful vanity and Beatrice’s misleadingly feisty exterior. I’m not sure we entirely needed the bedroom flashback to hammer home their former intimacy, but it’s nothing to get too excited about.

Elsewhere, performances are variable: I liked Kranz and Morgese’s callowness, the bland young lovers deliberately contrasting with their older and more cynical friends. Clark (Gregg) is authoritative and welcoming, while (Spencer Treat) Clark, of Unbreakable and Gladiator fame, shows signs of being a decent young actor. Riki Lindhome’s Conrade is adequate but little is added by the change of sex, while Maher is rather ineffectual and Reed Diamond fails to get in the swing of things at any point.

Happily, Nathan Fillion makes the part of Dogberry fly. He and his band of dim-witted deputies fit perfectly into the updated scenario, and Fillion impresses with natural comic timing. He also lets the words speak for themselves without feeling the need to gussy up the part with outrageous and obfuscating accents (hang your head, Keaton, hang your head). Tom Lenk’s Verges is also a welcome substitute for Ben Elton.

Ultimately, your preference for a film version of Much Ado About Nothing will probably depend on your mood: do you want to overheat, or would you rather chill? Branagh’s lavish movie positively radiates effervescent sunshine whereas Whedon’s minimalist treatment, with its fun, light jazz version of Sigh No More and affluent vibe, is laid-back and in all senses cool. For me, the sunshine wins every time, though for what is effectively a tea-break quickie, this film does a pretty tidy job of updating Shakespeare’s battle of wits for the 21st Century.

Ruthless People

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Cheating businessman Sam Spade plots to kill his loud, brash wife and is only too delighted when a pair of unlikely kidnappers threaten to do the job for him. Of course he’s not handing over the ransom money! But when his mistress inadvertently blackmails the police chief into arresting him, Sam suddenly finds the tables turned. Will anyone come out of this with their dignity intact, or more importantly, the money?

From the instant the credits begin, this film is resolutely eighties: primary colours everywhere, zigzag styling, synthetic music, big hair and a brilliantly nasty little story about greed and lust. Danny DeVito is Sam Spade, detailing to his Mistress Carol (Anita Morris) his plan to get rid of lumpy, blousy wife Barbara (Bette Midler). Sam doesn’t know two things: firstly, that Carol plans to use this information to blackmail Sam with a video of the deed made by her young and dumb boyfriend Earl (a bleached Bill Pullman); secondly, that poor young couple Ken and Sandy Kessler (Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater), the latter a fashion designer whose idea for a Spandex mini-skirt was stolen by Spade, plan to kidnap the (as they think) beloved wife for $500,000.

Naturally, Sam refuses to hand over the money and the Kesslers are forced to drop their price, but complications arise as he pretends to go along with the police investigation. Earl’s video, which everyone takes for the ghastly murder, turns out to be the police chief Harry Benton’s noisy indiscretion with a prostitute, making him vulnerable to Carol’s demand that Sam should be arrested. Even worse for Sam, Barbara’s hostility to her kidnappers melts away as she shapes up and learns of her husband’s refusal to pay. It all comes down to a showdown that can only turn out messily.

DeVito fills Sam with unashamed ghastliness, inviting comparisons between Ruthless People and films like Heartbreakers, which I dislike with a passion. But the differences are plentiful: here, you feel that Sam has driven Ken and Sandy to their actions, De Vito being the perfect pantomime villain to whom you can only wish worse things would happen. Also, despite her vulgar demeanour, you feel sorry for Barbara and you’re glad when she gains self-confidence.

And despite the dodgy ethics of captivity leading to weight loss, the jokes are also much better in Ruthless People, not solely centred below the waist. In general it’s as subtle as a brick, but there are still some nice Zucker/Abrahams touches, such as the police playing tennis in the background at the Spades’ home or Benton’s “World’s Greatest Husband” mug. The plot gets satisfyingly convoluted, and although the low-speed car chase at the end is something of a humdrum climax, the good end happily and the bad unhappily, which is as much as you can ask for.

De Vito and Midler carry off the acting spoils with ease, but Judge Reinhold is effectively frustrated as kind-hearted kidnapper Ken. Helen Slater takes a while to warm up as his mousy wife, but grows into the part when she befriends Barbara. Special mention must be made of Pullman, whose squeamish Earl is a marvellously dense character. It may or may not be a role he looks back on with much fondness, but his debut is a great comic performance.

Ruthless People is the sort of broad, low-brow film that is never going to win awards (that said, Midler won a Golden Globe for her performance), but although it is often nasty – especially to poodles – it is only mean to people who ultimately deserve it. More than that, the funny bits hit a lot more than they miss: if only the same could be said about a lot more so-called comedies.

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Her fame proving an insuperable obstacle to the day job, Gracie Hart becomes the glamorous face of the FBI. Gracie’s poster girl role is both limiting and lonely, so when her friend Cheryl is kidnapped along with pageant host Stan Fields, she has to get involved at the sharp end. However, she has fellow agent and ‘minder’ Sam Fuller to contend with – and theirs is not exactly a meeting of minds.

Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) just can’t catch a break. Although her heroics at the Miss United States pageant have earned her a certain cachet, her new-found celebrity proves just as liable to get her colleagues shot as her previous impetuousness. Boss Harry McDonald (Ernie Hudson) tries to avoid a fuss and takes Hart off duty, which she would probably be more angry about if her relationship with Eric (the non-returning Benjamin Bratt) hadn’t suddenly, and conclusively, bit the dust.

Ten months later and Gracie’s a media star, flogging a book and dispensing vacuous fashion advice to youngsters, with surly and violent Agent Sam Fuller (Regina King) in tow as bodyguard and outrageously camp Joel (Diedrich Bader) providing snarky quips and fabulous outfits. But you can’t keep a good agent down for long, and the kidnap of Miss USA Cheryl Frasier and Stan Fields (Heather Burns and William Shatner) in Las Vegas sends Gracie and her team on the hunt for their kidnappers, the Brothers Steele (Abraham Benrubie and Nick Offerman). Though there are a number of false starts – not least Gracie leaping on Dolly Parton – and local Bureau chief Treat Williams is none too pleased with the New Yorkers’ interference, Hart makes headway with the nervous assistance of her local liaison, jilted Agent Foreman (Enrique Murciano). But to fit in in Vegas, Joel has to come up with some pretty extraordinary clobber for the gals (and himself!) – and Sam isn’t exactly itching to fit in.

Let’s be honest about it: the ugly duckling plot of Miss Congeniality was hardly a breath of fresh air. It did, however, work on its own terms, with the help of some game acting. Miss Congeniality 2 doesn’t, for several reasons: first, there’s the sheer matter of time. Though the plot picks up immediately after the first film, there’s a strange disconnect between the movies. In part, this is because everyone looks different (don’t make me say older: Bullock still looks fine); but mostly, it’s because the star power, such as it was, and the sparkle that came with it, is almost entirely lacking.

It’s quite understandable that someone like Michael Caine wouldn’t be available – he’d probably found himself a room in Chris Nolan’s house by 2005 – but the failure to lure Benjamin Bratt in for at least a day speaks volumes. While Bullock again works her darnedest to wring laughs from the juxtaposition of goofiness and glamour, Regina King is lumbered with a role that’s simply a version of Gracie in the first film, only more so (though at least she has attitude, which is more than can be said for her part in that other benighted sequel, Legally Blonde 2). And in place of Caine’s effortless cool, we get the modest, generically camp talents of Diedrich Bader. When the trio pull together, such as the entertaining set-piece where Sam reluctantly glams up and sings ‘Proud Mary‘ with Bullock and Bader as flamboyant back-up, Miss Congeniality 2 comes to life; but these moments are few and far between.

Next, there are the awkward machinations of the plot. The beauty pageant gave a natural shape and impetus to the events of Miss Congeniality, a driving force that isn’t replicated in Cheryl and Stan’s kidnap. It’s easy to see why Shatner’s back (apart from an empty diary?), since his bumbling Stan Fields remains endearingly clueless. This time, however, he’s the villain of the piece; but because we like him, he can‘t directly be the kidnapper, so he hires a man in a hat who…I don’t know what he does, actually, but he’s soon disposed of by the thuggish and unexciting Steele brothers.

Gracie’s insight into the crime, meanwhile, comes via a tortuous link to a Dolly Parton drag act, which – surely – only exists because Ms Parton was available for a cameo. There’s some over-familiar aggro between Gracie and her bosses, too little of Cheryl’s good-natured dimness, and rather too much of Agent Foreman being lovelorn and drippy. The overall effect is not confusing, exactly; but the film is never fluent and its choppiness can get tiresome. It’s not relieved much by the finale, either, which is competently staged but low on logic.

Most importantly, Miss Congeniality 2 just isn’t as sharply written as its predecessor. The set-pieces are quietly amusing, such as Bullock dressing up as a pensioner to visit Stan’s mother, but there’s nothing to match Victor’s acidic quips here; instead, there’s a lot of King looking gruff and Bullock looking sad about her ruinous love life, with silly comedy (the attack on Dolly, escape by faked cramps) slotting in where it can between the loose cogs of the plot.

I’ve already mentioned Legally Blonde 2, and on the whole I prefer this sequel’s dourness to Elle Woods’ flimsy, fluffy canine adventures. But there’s not much in it, and liking Miss Congeniality 2 very slightly more is hardly a recommendation. If you’re desperate to see Bullock in feathers, give it a whirl, but it’s not up to the original’s standards. I’d urge you to give this a miss and instead remind yourself how good she is in Speed*.

NOTES: Not Speed 2, though. What is it with Bullock and unimpressive sequels?