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Posts Tagged ‘not funny’

Well, here we are in a brand new year, still with that fresh plastic aroma, but I am saddened to have to report that a stench not unlike that of rotting leftovers is lingering on in movie theatres internationally. Yes, 2018 produced many outstanding films, but it also unloaded on us a higher than usual number of genuine stinkers, and just to remind us of this, right at the back end of the year we were treated to Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson, a film which manages the feat (which I would have thought impossible) of seriously challenging Peter Rabbit for the title of Worst Film of 2018. (I initially thought Etan Cohen was a jokey pseudonym, for hopefully obvious reasons, but apparently not. This is a shame, as if so it would have been mildly amusing, which is more than you can say for anything else in this shocking non-comedy.)

Let me just describe the opening scene of Holmes & Watson and see if that gives you a taste of the very special quality, if that’s the right word, this film possesses. It opens in 1881, with Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) tending his beloved giant marrow, which he has clearly devoted many months to growing. Meanwhile, Dr Watson (John C Reilly) has recently returned from Afghanistan and, shaken by his experiences, decides to commit suicide (good comic stuff this). However, he opts to do so by jumping from the roof overlooking Holmes’ vegetable plot. Holmes, alarmed by the threat this poses to his marrow, tries to persuade Watson to jump off a different roof or possibly shoot himself instead. Naturally, Watson misunderstands all of this and believes Holmes to be genuinely concerned for his wellbeing. In his delight, he loses his footing and falls off the roof, but his fall is broken by Holmes’ marrow, which is destroyed in the process. The two men become firm friends and partners in Holmes’ detective activities as a result.

Just to reiterate, this is supposed to be a comedy film. This scene is, I think, fairly representative of the whole endeavour – in fact, I may have been quite generous, in that there are several other bits which are much, much worse. (I suppose it is just possible you may have read the foregoing and concluded ‘You know what, that actually sounds quite funny’ – if this is the case, then your imagination is doing a better job of realising this scene than anyone in the actual film, and you may want to consider a change of career.) Do you want to hear about the rest of the plot? Oh, God. The general tone of the film is one of knowing and self-satisfied stupidity. Holmes and Watson, who are both depicted as morons, are challenged to solve a murder in four days in order to prevent the assassination of Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris). Along the way Watson falls in love with an American doctor (Rebecca Hall) and Holmes falls in love with a woman who thinks she’s a cat (Lauren Lapkus).

There is actually quite a good cast here – regardless of what you think of Ferrell and Reilly, both of whom have made films I really like, it also includes Ralph Fiennes, Steve Coogan, Hugh Laurie, Rob Brydon and Kelly Macdonald. Unfortunately, the film also seems to have been afflicted by some sort of dreadful supernatural curse, which means that hardly any of these people show any sign of being genuinely amusing or showing more than marginal signs of creative talent of any kind. I would not have imagined it possible to watch a film with all these people and not once, in an hour and a half, feel the slightest inclination to laugh or express pleasure or amusement of any kind. It actually required an effort of will to stay to the end and endure the succession of witless jokes about gerontophilia, masturbation and projectile vomit.

The film’s signature joke is to insert modern ideas into its late-Victorian setting (not that historical accuracy appears to have been a concern). Thus, we have Holmes donning a red ‘Make England Great Again’ fez (along with some other unimpressive jokes about Donald Trump), Watson sending a telegram of his winky to a woman he’s attracted to, jokes about pay-per-view entertainment, and so on. I will say it again – none of it is funny. The film somehow exists within a negative-humour vortex, which even seems to be sucking the usual feeble jokes out of this review. It is uncanny. This comedy version of Sherlock Holmes is without a doubt the least funny version of these characters I have ever seen. The Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes is funnier. Hell, even the Jeremy Brett version is much funnier than this.

One could, of course, pause to wonder at the wisdom of doing a comedic spoof of something which was always intended as light-hearted escapism in the first place: your typical Sherlock Holmes adaptation may look like a serious costume drama, but the original stories were cut from a different cloth. One could also note the rather bemusing fact that much of this film appears to be methodically spoofing the Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law Holmes movies, the most recent of which is seven years old. Why bother? It is genuinely confounding. The only thing about this film which sort of makes sense is the news that, apparently, Sony sensed what a horror they had on their hands and tried to offload it on Netflix – but even the streaming giant, which spends money so heedlessly it apparently thought spending $80 million on Bright was a good investment, didn’t bite on this occasion.

I have to say that Holmes & Watson has caused me to question my whole choice of lifestyle as a regular cinema-goer. I saw over eighty new films on the big screen in 2018, mainly because I always like to see as many as possible and I do genuinely enjoy the mechanics of going to the cinema, buying my ticket, getting  a good seat, watching the trailers, and so on. But why on earth did I go to see this film? I knew going in it was going to be bad – word of a 0% approval rating on review aggregation websites travels, after all. And I know I always say I don’t mind watching bad films, just boring ones. But what is wrong with me? Am I some kind of masochist? Is breaking my own record worth this kind of experience? Is this review genuinely going to dissuade anyone from going to see Holmes & Watson? I don’t know. I don’t know. I may only have another 35 years left to live; do I really want to spend them trying to assimilate this kind of worthless rubbish?

The least I can say is that 2019 can only get better from this point on, because pretty much any film is going to look good after this one. Even so: this is not so much a movie as ninety minutes of existential trauma. An almost incomprehensibly bad film.

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It is what people used to call the silly season, when not much is happening in terms of conventional news, and so the more traditional papers are falling back on hopefully-interesting non-news stories. Catching my eye the other day was another piece speculating about the identity of the next James Bond, despite the fact that Daniel Craig has yet to retire and in fact has another film in the works. Current favourite, allegedly, is Idris Elba, which – as I have discussed before – strikes me as a somewhat questionable move (angry mob, please assemble at the usual place). I’m rather more taken by the prospect of the 3/1 second favourite, who is an actor I can actually imagine playing a recognisable and interesting version of Ian Fleming’s character – Tom Hardy.

I’ve been impressed by Hardy for quite some years now, not least by the way he has kept plugging away and overcome some dubious early career moves (his turn as the Picard clone in Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance). Talent will out, it seems – however, if you check through his filmography to see his track record when portraying suave, lady-killing spies, the first piece of evidence which leaps out at you is not in Tom Hardy’s favour. It is in a spirit of public service, and sympathy for the actors concerned, that I must speak of McG’s 2012 film This Means War.

This movie concerns the activities of a pair of CIA agents, played by Hardy and Chris Pine – it is stated quite clearly that Hardy is British, so what he is doing in the CIA is anyone’s guess, but that’s just the level of attention to detail you can expect from this film. Pine and Hardy are partners, and as the film opens they are embarking upon a mission in Hong Kong to capture a pair of international arms dealers. The level of professionalism of this pair is foreshadowed by the way they end up having a gun battle in a crowded bar, killing one of the people they were supposed to apprehend, with his brother escaping to swear revenge. The duo’s boss (Angela Bassett, basically playing the same role as in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, though I strongly doubt the two films are in continuity) confines them to their desks in Los Angeles.

It turns out that Hardy has split up with the mother of his child, and, gripped by nebulous but powerful sentiments, he joins an on-line dating site. (Yes, even though he is a top international spy.) Here he connects with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a sort of lifestyle guru who has trouble committing to personal decisions: it transpires she was added to the site by her wacky best friend (Chelsea Handler, saddled with some particularly subpar material). Hardy and Witherspoon are somewhat taken with each other when they meet, but what should happen then? Well, after leaving Hardy, Witherspoon goes into the local DVD rental store (I tell you, this one scene dates the film like you wouldn’t believe) and has another cute-meet with Pine, who has been hanging around in case Hardy needs a hand getting out of his date.

The DVD store cute-meet scene is particularly notable in that it is especially smugly written, with Pine and Witherspoon trading repartee about their deep knowledge of movies and preferences within the field. Except, and this is barely credible, given this film was actually (by definition) written by a screenwriter, neither of them has a clue what they’re talking about, confidently asserting that any Hitchcock film from between 1950 and 1972 is a good choice (one word rebuttal: Topaz).

Well, anyway, the final piece of set-up occurs when Pine and Hardy, both having disclosed they are in a new relationship, discover they are dating the same woman (Witherspoon, crucially, is unaware the two men even know each other). Despite initially having a gentlemen’s agreement to be reasonable about this, this naturally breaks down, with most of the rest of the film taken up with their (it says here) hilarious attempts to impress Witherspoon while sabotaging the other’s chances. (Meanwhile the vengeful arms dealer from near the start occasionally pops up in a B-story, setting up a somewhat obvious climax.)

The best thing you can say about This Means War is that it is visually appealing, on a solely aesthetic level. Basically there are lots of bright colours (garishly so, which sort of matches the cartoonishness of the plot), with extremely attractive people living in immaculately styled apartments. Should you engage with it on any level beyond the utterly superficial (and this includes actually listening to the dialogue), however, this is a very lousy movie.

I watched this movie scratching my head and trying to work out what genre it actually belongs to: it has cute-meets and allegedly comic scenes, but also gun battles and fights and a big car chase. Presumably it is intended to be a sort of mash-up of the action-comedy and rom-com genres, with something for everyone going out on date night. Well, what it really comes out resembling is a rom-com aimed at jocks, which is a novel idea, in the same sense that making ladders out of rubber would be a novel idea.

Let me explain: your typical rom-com is primarily aimed at a female audience, regardless of whether the protagonist is male or female – they are invariably sympathetic and charming enough for the audience to identify with. However, in this film Witherspoon is essentially treated as an attractive trophy for the two men to joust over, too dumb and self-obsessed to notice all the weird stuff going on around her. The two male leads are alpha-jocks and it’s really not clear whether they’re genuinely interested in Witherspoon for her own (undeniable) charms, or just overtaken by the urge to outperform their former friend.

Of course, this leads us onto another major problem, which is that the film is just not very funny. Not only is it not funny, but most of the unfunny comic material is rather questionable: both Hardy and Pine deploy the full apparatus of the intelligence establishment in order to get the girl, which means that Witherspoon spends most of the movie under CIA surveillance with her apartment bugged. Unauthorised government surveillance – that’s the stuff of real comedy gold, folks! There’s also a lot of very broad stuff about Hardy shooting Pine with a tranquiliser gun to stop him having sex with Witherspoon, Pine following their car with a drone (Hardy shoots it down with his handgun), and so on.

Reese Witherspoon, who I have always found a fairly agreeable performer, genuinely seems to be trying her best in a very unrewarding role. What’s more interesting is what’s going on elsewhere, for as well as the in-story contest between Pine and Hardy as characters, there is also the issue of which one of them takes the acting honours. Well, it may be that I am biased, but on several occasions I have come away from movies having been very impressed by a Tom Hardy performance, while the best I can say for Chris Pine is that once in a while I have been rather impressed by a film in which his performance was competent. It may in fact be that Tom Hardy is going easy on his co-star and not giving it 100%, but he still easily steals the movie from him.

The resolution of the actual plot of the film is another matter. While watching it, I was scratching my head (again; a lot of head-scratching went on during This Means War) trying to work out how they would conclude the story. Whichever one of the guys Witherspoon chose, I thought, it would risk disappointing that section of the audience rooting for the other one (although I suppose we should be grateful she even gets given a choice). For her to assert herself and (with justification) give both of them the boot would constitute too severe a violation of rom-com norms. The only other option (the three of them settling down to some kind of menage a troi, possibly involving Pine and Hardy admitting to having more than fraternal feelings for each other) would clearly be much too innovative and interesting for this kind of film. Needless to say, the movie bottles it.

Oh well, you can make bad films and still be a good James Bond (just look at some of the things Sean Connery was doing in the late 1950s), and we can only hope that This Means War doesn’t count against Tom Hardy too much. The fact remains, though, that this is one bad movie – not simply because it is unfunny, and unreconstructed, but also because of the way it treats a deeply suspect premise in such a knockabout manner. No-one emerges from this one with any credit.

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Musings on The Death of Cinema, Part Three – well, hang on, before we really get properly stuck into Will Gluck’s CGI movie version of Peter Rabbit, perhaps a little more context is required. Beatrix Potter’s original tales of the adventures of woodland characters were amongst the very first stories that I was ever read, and as a result they retain a power to affect me on a deeply emotional level: my memories of them have a fondness and delicacy to them that I find it extremely difficult to articulate. Anyone tampering with the elemental stuff of my childhood is, in effect, jabbing a sharp stick down into my subconscious. I didn’t go and see either of the Paddington films for exactly this reason: I wasn’t sure I could cope with the upwelling of emotion even a good Paddington movie would inevitably produce. But at least the Paddington films did get universally good reviews. This is not true of Peter Rabbit.

So why in sanity’s name would I go near this film? Well, to bear witness, mainly; to stare down into the blackest pits of horror and debasement unblinkingly, so I can vent my spleen all over the internet with at least the semblance of an informed opinion. Plus someone asked me to, because he thought the ensuing review might be quite funny. I ask you.

Proper critics have said some quite peculiar and arguably silly things about Peter Rabbit: ‘not all bad, just very nearly’ is just one of the far too generous notices it has drawn. There have also been various references to Beatrix Potter herself ‘spinning in her grave’, when as any fule kno Miss Potter was cremated in December 1943. However, if the rocks and stones themselves of the Lake District were to rise up in violent revolt against this horrendous travesty, if the trees and waters and small furry creatures were to gather their strength and strike a terrible blow of vengeance against all the works of man – well, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

This is apparently ‘an irreverent, contemporary comedy with attitude’ – yes, think of Miss Potter’s famous The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the first three words that bound into your skull are ‘irreverent’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘attitude’, aren’t they? James Corden voices Peter Rabbit with all the heart-warming charm of a blocked drain, while Margot Robbie is Flopsy Rabbit and Daisy Ridley is Cottontail Rabbit. (Mrs Rabbit has been killed off, as she is obviously just not street enough for modern audiences.) The rabbits spend all their time sneaking into the vegetable patch of grumpy old Mr McGregor (Sam Neill).

The substance of the book is still just about visible off in the distance, but there now follows a sequence in which Peter Rabbit actively contemplates inserting a carrot into Mr McGregor’s rectum while the latter is chasing him about the garden. The exertions of the chase cause Mr McGregor to drop dead, however, before the deed can be done.

Yup, that’s right: this is a version of Peter Rabbit in which Peter Rabbit basically kills Mr McGregor. It makes that film version of Dad’s Army where Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head look like a triumph of authenticity. The film does squirm around on this point, though, claiming that McGregor’s ‘poor lifestyle choices’ were to blame, and including a throwaway gag about Asbestos poisoning. Ha! Ha! Asbestos poisoning! That’s so contemporary and irrelevent, not to mention hilarious!

Well, inheriting the house (and, of course, the vegetable patch) is Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a virtually unhinged control-freak who used to work for Harrods (which appears to have financed the film, as it features the most blatant and extended product placement I’ve seen in any film since Power Rangers). Cue another attitude-heavy gag about McGregor drinking water out of the Harrods toilet bowls. Needless to say, McGregor hates the rabbits and their woodland friends, but he is quite taken with his nature-loving neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne, who does not receive her customary ‘sigh’ on this occasion).

Yup, once again you are ahead of me: Bea is, we are invited to infer, Beatrix Potter herself, but rather than a multi-talented artist, natural scientist and expert mycologist, in the movie she is presented as a hippy-dippy free spirit and slightly inept abstract painter. Young McGregor is much taken with her, and she with him, rather to the chagrin of Peter Rabbit. Can Peter Rabbit drive McGregor away? Can McGregor successfully woo Bea? Can Bea make the rabbits behave, and encourage McGregor to be a bit less retentive?

All this, plus rapping sparrows, a sight gag where Mrs Tiggy-Winkle walks repeatedly into an electric fence, and the already-notorious moment when the rabbits pelt McGregor with blackberries, which he is allergic to, causing him to go into anaphylactic shock and collapse. Ho ho ho! Anaphylactic shock! That’s just so contemporary!

Once again, the film tries to smarm its way around any potential taste issues here, as the whole blackberry scene is prefaced by a moment where Peter Rabbit basically turns to the camera and says ‘Allergies are a serious business, and we’re not making fun of sufferers, because we don’t want to get letters’. Before the film proceeds to make fun of sufferers and do the whole comedy-anaphylactic-shock routine.

Just how bad is Peter Rabbit? Well, for once, words fail me. I have to resort to the following picture, which basically depicts the expression on my face for most of this movie:

In short, it is horrendously, almost indescribably bad, assuming you come to it from the point of view of someone wanting a movie with even the barest resemblance to Beatrix Potter’s charming, gentle stories.

It’s not even as if the guilty parties can claim ignorance, for the tiny sliver of the film which is actually pleasant to watch is a fully-animated flashback, done in the style of the book’s original illustrations, depicting the happier days of the rabbit family. It completely gets the sweetness and subtlety of the original tales, which just makes the ghastliness of the rest of the movie all the more reprehensible: they could have done a whole movie like that. They chose otherwise. They have no defence.

This is almost the Platonic ideal of a well-known property being wrenched violently out of shape simply in order to exploit its name-recognition factor. In places this almost resembles a mean-spirited parody of Beatrix Potter, with her stories subverted by the inclusion of a knowing, desperately self-aware sense of humour. Is the whole thing supposed to be ironic on some level? I’m not sure. The closing section certainly seems to be having some fun at the expense of grisly and formulaic Richard Curtis-style rom-coms. Fair enough; there’s fun to be had there. But don’t do it if it means doing this kind of violence to poor little Peter Rabbit.

Normally I could find the generosity to suggest that this film has a certain level of technical competence, and the performances of the two leads are serviceable enough. But not in this case. This is a knowing, premeditated violation of an innocent children’s classic, a wilful, unconscionable cash-grab (and before you say anything, I used my free ticket card to get in to see it, so my conscience is clear) of such mercenary awfulness it is almost impossible to watch without despair swallowing your soul. The success of the Paddington films means more horrors of this ilk are almost inevitable, I fear. The one faint glimmer of hope I can offer is that there were only five people at the screening I went to, and none of them were from the target demographic for this film. So there is at least a chance it is dying on its cotton-tailed arse. It deserves to; it honestly deserves to. Not so much a work of art as a sin against nature.

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There were, of course, many things about the pre-financial crisis world that any sensible person might look back on with a sense of regret and nostalgia. For myself, one of these is Borders, a chain of bookshops which operated on an epic scale – just a bit too epic, as it turned out. These days the Borders which I most often frequented have turned into branches of Tescos or pet supply shops; I suppose I should just be grateful that Waterstones survived the cull.

Adding just a little piquancy to all this fond remembrance (don’t worry, we will get to something of substance fairly soon) is the fact that, during the last months of Borders’ existence, I found myself somewhat financially embarrassed and was entirely unable to take full advantage of the bounty on offer. The only thing I remember buying was a book which, on later reflection, I found myself almost wishing I hadn’t: Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (based, obviously, on the famous novel by Jane Austen, who is rather cheekily credited as co-writer).

I will spare you yet further ramblings about my somewhat turbulent relationship with different incarnations of Pride and Prejudice, and merely note that Grahame-Smith’s parody is another manifestation of the Great Zombie Boom of recent years. The book itelf was successful enough to spawn various follow-ups, with titles like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, while Grahame-Smith put his obvious talent for a snappy title to work and went on to write Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, filmed by Timur Bekmambetov a few years ago.

The thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that it’s a funny title which tells you exactly what to expect, but is it actually something you can drag out for the length of a whole novel? It’s a funny concept, but you need a bit more if you’re making anything longer than a comedy sketch.

All very relevant, one would suspect, to the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, written and directed by Burr Steers, and produced by Natalie Portman, who was clearly at one point really desperate to play Elizabeth Bennet, no matter what the context. This is another of those films that never made it to the local cinemas in Oxford, and I was quite glad to catch up with it, even if my expectations were, shall we say, moderate at best.

Steers has a conscientious go at setting the scene in a manner which is vaguely coherent: the expansion of the British Empire in the 18th century brings all kinds of foreign exotica to England’s green and pleasant lands, most notably the zombie virus, which proceeds to sweep the nation. London is fortified (a touch of steampunk here), and sensible folk of the upper classes invest in combat training so they may defend themselves against the undead hordes.

It is against this backdrop that much of the same plot as in the traditional Pride and Prejudice unfolds: the Bennets are a well-bred but slightly impecunious family, and Mrs Bennet (Sally Phillips) is determined to find good and wealthy husbands for her five daughters. Top of the list are Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Elizabeth (Lily James). The arrival at the neighbouring estate of the dashing and wealthy Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth) is surely a good sign, but his stern friend Mr Darcy (Sam Riley) seems to disapprove entirely of the Bennets. Meanwhile, Elizabeth finds her head turned somewhat by Wickham (Jack Huston), a young soldier who appears to have been badly wronged by Darcy. Can the Bennet girls find romance and happiness? Could it be that Elizabeth has badly misjudged Darcy?

And, of course, there are also zombies rampaging about the countryside, although as this film is only a 15 certificate in the UK, the actual blood-soaked horror is inevitably a bit low-key. One of the big differences between the Grahame-Smith novel and the movie is that the latter moves much further away from the original Austen story, inserting much more of an action-adventure climax involving the Four Horsemen of the Zombie Apocalypse, not to mention the Zombie Antichrist.

I can kind of see why they’ve done this, as its identity as an action-horror zombie movie is clearly very important to this film – note the poster, on which the word ‘Zombies’ is considerably larger than the others. But it does inevitably take the movie further away from Jane Austen, which – given the whole point of the thing is that it’s an Austen-based mash-up – is surely a mistake. Perhaps it’s just an indication that this film has a fundamental problem, trying to bring together things which just don’t fit in the same story.

Well, maybe, maybe not. My problem with the book was that Grahame-Smith seemed to have chickened out of just putting zombies into Pride and Prejudice – which is, as noted, a funny idea – and had started trying to be actively funny, with creaky jokes like ‘Mr Bingley was famous for the size of his balls’, and the inclusion of the whole martial arts element, which isn’t rooted in the works of either Jane Austen or George A Romero.

Perhaps the problem is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is quite funny as an idea, but once you start actually writing the story and genuinely attempt to stay true to both elements, it turns into something else. You could make it work, probably, but it wouldn’t be the comedy that the title suggests.

Certainly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sort of hangs together as a zombopocalypse movie with a period setting – and in its own way it’s not much tonally weirder than Maggie, for instance – and in some ways it’s the Austen-specific bits of the plot that feel intrusive. It’s as any kind of comedy that it falls down, being fatally short on wit and self-awareness. Mostly, it takes itself painfully seriously, and the actually funny bits are the ones that feel like they’ve wandered in from a different film – Matt Smith (one of many actors who’ve managed to swing the ‘and’ position in the credits on this film) goes into comedy overdrive as Mr Collins and blasts everyone else off the screen, while a crucial scene between Elizabeth and Darcy juxtaposes authentically Austenesque dialogue with the pair of them engaging in hand-to-hand combat: suddenly the film comes to life, even though it feels like much more of a spoof as it does so. (The moment where a hot-under-the-collar Darcy dives into a lake, an emendation of the story first added by the BBC in 1995, makes an appearance, apparently because it’s expected to nowadays. It’s handled completely straight even though it’s surely ripe for spoofing.)

But these are only a handful of moments in what is quite a long film which never quite figures out its own identity – does it want to be a proper costume drama, a rom-com, an action horror movie, or what? Is it actually supposed to be funny? And if so, on what level? Is it trying to be clever, or knowingly dumb? It’s genuinely difficult to tell, not least because the answers seem to change throughout the course of the film.

As I have often noted in the past, you can do a lot with zombies (as recent films have shown). But you can’t do everything with them, or at least not all in the same movie. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes a talented and attractive cast and doesn’t give them the material they deserve, apparently never quite knowing what to do with them. It may be the film-makers never settled on the type of film they wanted to make. It may be that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is only funny as a title, not an actual story. I’m not actually sure. But I’m sure that this is a movie which doesn’t really work.

 

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In the closest thing to miscegenation you’re likely to find in a mainstream multiplex, Universal Pictures (producers of the Fast and Furious series, amongst other high-powered blockbusters) have come together with Screen Yorkshire (producers of a wide range of generally quite miserable low-budget films) to make Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army, a new version of the legendary British sitcom. Does that sound weird? It should. But in a good way or not? Well, if I tell you that in the new Dad’s Army an innocent young woman is clubbed into unconsciousness and lovable old Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head, you may get some inkling of how horribly astray the new proceedings go.

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In rather the same way that the historical existence of the British police box is now only widely known thanks to Doctor Who’s TARDIS, so I suspect the British Home Guard – a military organisation in existence between 1940 and 1944, made up of men too young and old for the army, intended to assist in the nation’s defence in the event of a Nazi invasion – would long since have become a footnote of history were it not for Dad’s Army. Even having to explain what Dad’s Army is feels very odd, but anyway – the sitcom ran between 1968 and 1977, clocking up 80 episodes, repeats of which have been a staple of the schedules pretty much ever since. In the UK it is genuinely beloved and instantly familiar in a way that is matched by only a tiny handful of other programmes.

So you can kind of understand why people might think tapping into the vast well of affection the public still have for the series was a sound commercial idea, despite the fact that virtually the entire original cast has been dead for decades (two members are hanging on and are duly wheeled out for cameos here). Certainly this film assumes familiarity with the Dad’s Army set-up – unlike the 1971 film version, which depicted the formation of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon, this one starts with them as a going concern.

In command is the fussy, pompous Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones), assisted by the terribly smooth Sergeant Wilson (Bill Nighy). In the ranks are panic-prone old soldier Jones (Tom Courtenay), young and callow Pike (Blake Harrison), wide boy Walker (Daniel Mays), grumpy Scot Frazer (Bill Paterson), and terribly nice old gent Godfrey (Michael Gambon). As a military unit their effectiveness is close to absolute zero, but they do try hard.

Walmington-on-Sea is sent into a very mild state of shock with the arrival of glamorous reporter Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta Jones, who probably qualifies as an imported Hollywood star even though she comes from Swansea), intent on doing a story on the unit. It turns out she and Wilson have history of a sort, which only increases Mainwaring’s normal inferiority complex. Even more important, however, is the revelation that there is a Nazi spy operating somewhere in the town, just as the Home Guard have been charged with protecting a vital supply depot…

Hmmm. You may be expecting a clever twist when it comes to the identity of the spy. You will not get one. You may in fact be expecting all sorts of things from the new Dad’s Army, for this is a film based on an undeniable classic, filled with brilliant actors from many different film, TV, and theatre traditions. But if your expectations are at all positive, a mighty disappointment is coming your way.

We seem to be having a mini-boom in the production of movies based on British sitcoms, possibly fuelled by the unreasonable success of the two Inbetweeners films (two of the Inbetweeners regulars have snagged roles here), with not just this but a movie of Absolutely Fabulous on the way. However, anyone making even the most cursory survey of Brit sitcoms on film will instantly see that these films are almost always utterly awful, and it is this tradition which Dad’s Army proudly, grimly, upholds.

Honestly, in 96 long minutes I felt the urge to laugh twice, mildly both times. There are a lot of talented people on this film which inevitably leads one to wonder just what the hell has gone so badly wrong. The obvious answer is to say that it’s simply because the original series had such unique, perfect chemistry between the cast, and such strong writing. Well, that’s true (though I have to say I often find the series to be rather too broad and sentimental for my tastes), but it’s not just the case that this movie is trying to copy the TV show and failing. This movie is a rather different beast.

The TV show, and indeed the 1971 movie, were both ultimately quite cosy and soft affairs, ultimately driven by a deep affection for the characters: a sort of ongoing cartoon or music hall sketch, delivered by wobbly videotape into people’s front rooms. In the new movie, someone gets shot dead in the first few minutes, which tonally feels terribly wrong for Dad’s Army. But it’s more than this: writer Hamish McColl doesn’t even seem to like the characters that much, and has felt the need to give most of them psychological issues and back-stories that are new to this version. There’s a undercurrent of harsh emotional realism and angst that somehow makes them all pitiable at least as much as lovable.

And this new-found realism does not sit well with the broad slapstick and sight-gags which are traditional Dad’s Army fare and which the film also works hard to include. To be honest, it kills most of the humour and the film often feels slightly childish as a result. You can’t be traditional Dad’s Army and something darker and grittier at the same time; one would have thought that was obvious. But apparently not.

I suppose some people might also take exception to the inclusion of Mrs Mainwaring as an on-screen presence (played by Felicity Montagu), arguing that the whole point of the character was that she was left to the viewer’s imagination – perhaps even to the fact that the womenfolk of the town play a rather more significant role than they ever did on TV, to the point where in parts it’s almost more like Last of the Summer Wine. The Diversity Police have paid a visit, I suppose, but given this is by far less incongruous than the badly misjudged tone of the film I find it hard to get very exercised by it.

The structure of the film is, I suppose, solid, and it does provide a showcase for the various performers to a give a virtuoso display of how one uses brilliant acting technique to avoid being embarrassed by substandard material. But the fact remains that it’s nowhere near funny or warm enough to be worthy of the Dad’s Army title – and, as a result, it’s actively depressing more than anything else.

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When not surveying the slowly collapsing political and cultural outlook for my country, or indeed contemplating the great empty spaces of my own soul, one of the ways I like to spend my time is to ponder who the funniest one on Parks and Recreation is. Sometimes I think it’s Chris Pratt. Sometimes I think it’s Adam Scott. Most of the time, I have to say, I’m convinced it’s Nick Offerman. But occasionally I think it’s Aubrey Plaza.

Was this the reason I ended up putting Safety Not Guaranteed on my DVD rental list? I’m not really sure, for I have no memory of actually doing so. I suspect the words ‘time travel’ in the description of the film may have had something to do with it.

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This movie came out in 2011 and was directed by Colin Trevorrow. Plaza largely recycles her Parks and Recreation persona as Darius, a disaffected intern working for a magazine based in Seattle. The position is hardly fulfilling, but a bizarre advert in a newspaper’s classified ads section offers a brief diversion, if nothing else: someone is advertising for a companion to accompany them on a trip back in time.

At an editorial meeting Darius’ co-worker Jeff (Jake Johnson) proposes they go and investigate the ad as the basis of a tongue-in-cheek piece for the magazine. It’s only when they arrive in small town where the poster of the advert lives that Jeff reveals this is just an excuse for them to have a bit of an out-of-town break. An old girlfriend of his lives in the same town and he’s intent on hooking up with her again, so he leaves Darius to handle the actual investigating.

Darius soon makes contact with the would-be time traveller. His name is Kenneth (played by Mark Duplass) and he is just a bit paranoid – but given that there seem to be government agents taking an interest in his activities, perhaps he has a right to be. Darius soon finds herself growing fascinated by this strange dreamer, and perhaps even wanting to believe he really does have a time machine…

It’s always a bit rattling to find yourself completely out of step with the majority of the world, but I find myself in just this position when it comes to Safety Not Guaranteed. This is a movie with a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the recipient of a large number of awards from esteemed sources like Sundance, Independent Spirit, and the Tel Aviv International Fantastic Festival. And yet I found it borderline annoying, occasionally dull, largely unconvincing, and generally underwhelming.

This is obviously a modest, low-budget film, and given those constraints it looks impressive. It reminded me in some ways of the same year’s Another Earth, in that it uses a generic plot device to explore introspective and personal themes of regret and isolation. In both cases the actual plot device is a Maguffin – in the case of Safety Not Included the question of whether or not Kenneth’s time machine works or not is irrelevant to the plot for virtually the entire duration of the film. To put it another way: Primer this ain’t.

Then again, I have to note that this movie is described as a comedy, not an SF film, and I probably shouldn’t get too incensed about the fact that it’s a time travel film that doesn’t actually have any time travel in it. On the other hand, I think the fact that it’s a comedy which didn’t make me laugh once throughout its length is reasonable grounds for criticism. I wasn’t even sure which bits are actually supposed to be funny – are we supposed to be laughing at Kenneth for being such a geeky weirdo? Perhaps I am just too kindly-disposed towards geeky weirdos, being one myself, but there’s also the fact that he’s the romantic interest of the movie and thus surely not an obvious figure of fun.

I suppose I should mention that the central relationship between Plaza and Duplass did not convince me in the slightest. I suspect the intended arc here is for Plaza to go from jaded cynicism to a new-found hopefulness as a result of her interaction with Duplass’ character, but either the script isn’t careful enough in spelling this out or Plaza simply doesn’t yet have the skill as an actress to make it work. As it is, the main character in this film simply comes across as a slightly less malevolent version of Ron Swanson’s PA.

Completely non-genre related, by the way, is the second story strand about Jeff’s attempt to recapture his youthful experiences with old girlfriend Liz (Jenica Bergere). For some reason this relationship did ring true for me, and there’s almost a genuine sense of pathos as it doesn’t work out for them – but the Jeff character is too broadly crass the rest of the time for it to be really affecting.

Still, given the theme of the film as a whole is a desire to revisit the past, at least it has a sort of thematic unity, and a definite technical competence. It just doesn’t have any laughs, new ideas, genuine surprises, or a central relationship that really convinces. But, as I say, everyone else seems to disagree with me, and your mileage may differ.

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Sometimes the trailers for other movies at the start of a DVD give you a bit of an insight into the quality of whatever it is you’re about to partake of – simply because these tend to be assigned on the ‘if you like this, you’ll probably like these, too’. This occasionally tips me off to a film I’ve never heard of but which looks interesting. At other times it’s an early warning system giving me valuable notice of the need to lower my expectations radically.

As, for example, when the advert for the Billy Zane-Kelly Brook erotic potboiler Three turns up at the top of a disc. The, ahem, edited highlights of this film can easily be found on a number of video-sharing websites, revealing not only that Miss Brook still can’t act in any measurable sense, but that her wardrobe budget for the entire movie appears to have been about 75p, and that – more seriously – the film is shooting for torrid but ends up hitting turgid.

The Three trailer indeed turned up on a rented DVD recently. Not a good omen for the film which followed, which was Sean Ellis’s Cashback – but not an entirely unfair one, either. For a while I was convinced this was going to turn out to be one of the most misconceived, wrong-headed, downright nastiest films I’ve seen in a long time. I relented on this opinion a bit as the movie went on, but… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Sean Biggerstaff plays Ben, an art student suddenly afflicted with total insomnia after a stressful breakup with his girlfriend (Michelle Ryan, who’s not in it much). Short of cash he decides to put these extra hours to use by getting a job on the night shift at the Whitechapel branch of the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain.

Here he meets various wacky characters but also checkout girl Sharon (Emilia Fox). Is she the girl who can help him get over his breakup and find true love?

Well, er, yes. Sorry if I’m spoiling the ending for you there. There’s a sense in which Cashback does work as a rom-com, but to call it that doesn’t begin to describe it in any meaningful sense. This has the aura about it of a project which the writer-director has been slaving away at for many, many years, throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the script – various elements, such as no-one appearing to have a mobile phone, and Ben watching the 1984 Olympics on TV as a schoolboy (when the actor playing him in the present day was still an infant), suggest that this script was written in the mid-90s and took ten years to get produced.

Is it therefore a bit overdone? I would say so. The central romance is pleasingly underplayed and actually quite affecting, but it only really becomes central in the latter third of the film. Prior to this there is a huge amount of introspective and rather pretentious bibbling from Ben. The initial section has him bemoaning the failure of his relationship with Ryan’s character at great length and in much detail, and the direction and music suggest a significant tragedy is being recounted before our eyes. It is not: it is a student who briefly punched above his weight sitting around feeling sorry for himself and whining about it. Get a grip, man.

Fears that this was going to turn out to be ninety minutes of shoegazing were dispelled when the supermarket stuff got underway, introducing (and I quote) ‘a colourful cast of characters’. They include a couple of laddish morons, a psychotic store manager, and a kung fu obsessive. I get the impression the scenes with this lot are supposed to be funny. Hmm. Possibly I would have laughed more had I not been marvelling at what the hell Sainsbury’s were thinking of letting their company be depicted in this way. Are the staff of the chain’s shops genuinely a bunch of idiots, freaks, and weirdos? This pushes the ‘there is no bad publicity concept’ to its limit, surely.

And then we get to the really jawdropping stuff – Ben discovers he has the ability to freeze time, allowing him to wander about inside a split second while everyone else is oblivious to him. Is this a genuine power or some sort of magical-realistic device? I suspect the latter, but anyway, the important thing is what he chooses to do with this power. Does our hero try to avert little accidents and help people in difficult spots? He does not. He uses it to get a better appreciation of the beauty of the female customers at Sainsbury’s by (brace yourself, kiddies) stripping them of their clothes while they are frozen and then drawing nude pictures of them.

Or, to put it another way, molesting them. At no time does he really seem to consider that there is in fact something deeply creepy and prurient (not to mention morally reprehensible) about this, and the film seems A-okay about it too. It’s even implied that he does this to his girlfriend (although obviously Emilia Fox wasn’t up for the full monty, so to speak) and she seems perfectly okay with it when she eventually finds out. It’s just eeuchh. And if this wasn’t bad enough, it segues into a long sequence in which Ben recounts, in slightly tedious detail, the history of his sexual awakening and his relationship with pornography. The camera does a lot of leery dwelling-upon at this point.

At this point it looks like Cashback‘s going to turn out to be a grim magical-realist drama about male objectification of women, but then (after a bit more grim non-comedy and a hint that this is suddenly going to turn into a horror movie – it doesn’t) the romance suddenly kicks off. As I said, Fox and Biggerstaff are good enough to do a huge amount to redeem all the ugly, ugly stuff that’s already happened, but even then the film just can’t resist going down the exploitation route – there’s a subplot about Ben having to hire a stripper for a party, which is an excuse for some more T&A (even Emilia Fox is required to slip into something skimpy and sheer and cavort around a pole).

You know, when I finished watching Cashback I thought the closing stuff with Ben and Sharon’s relationship was sweet and well-played enough to off-set the nastiness of most of the rest of the film. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure that it is – given the prominence of the sex and nudity angle in the poster it may be that, rather than this being there as colour for the romance, the romance is just there as a fig leaf (so to speak) for the nudity and sexual content. (Although I’m also well aware of how little say directors often have in how their films are marketed.)

Hum. At the very least the two leads are very watchable (the nigh-on ten year age gap between them barely registers) and it’s shot and directed with very considerable ingenuity and technical skill. This still just means that talent is being put to the service of a largely unpleasant story – the fact that the director seems completely oblivious of how creepy and dubious much of his film is (let alone its inert pretentiousness) just makes Cashback even more baffling and uncomfortable to watch.

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