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A swashbuckler/martial arts hybrid which is so busy trying to serve up spectacular action that it badly fumbles everything else., 22 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Hmmm... an attempt to combine swordplay with martial arts, a period swashbuckler from French literature with a Hong Kong style of action film-making. An odd fusion of influences, for sure. Many viewers will be turned off by the idea even before the credits roll, but I wanted to give the film a chance before judging it. Alas, this is one of those occasions where the mocking critics are proved right - The Musketeer is a huge disappointment, a dispiriting romp singularly lacking in wit, entertainment or any sense of meaningful narrative. It avoids a one-star rating simply because a couple of action sequences are interestingly choreographed and Tim Roth is good as a vile villain. On every other level the film is an abject failure.

Raised by former musketeer Plachet (Jean-Pierre Castaldi) following the murder of his parents, D'Artagnan (Justin Chambers) grows up dreaming of becoming a musketeer himself. Unfortunately, by the time he is old enough and skilled enough to go to Paris to fulfil his dream, the musketeers have been disbanded by the scheming Cardinal Richlieu (Steven Rea). Richlieu is busily manipulating events in France, trying to create uneasy tensions between his own country and Britain and Spain, with help from his sinister one-eyed henchmen Febre (Tim Roth). Febre is the same villain who killed D'Artagnan's parents, and his blind eye is a direct result of an injury inflicted upon him by D'Artagnan as a boy. D'Artagnan manages to persuade some ex-musketeers to rise up and fight back against the political plotters controlling the country. Eventually, Febre becomes so drunk with power and bloodlust that even Cardinal Richlieu realises that he cannot control him, so he asks D'Artagnan and the musketeers to stop him. With the life of the Queen (Catherine Deneuve) and a young chambermaid (Mena Suvari) at stake, D'Artagnan attempts one last desperate bid to destroy Febre in his lair.

The cast is an impressive one: Rea, Deneuve, Castaldi, Suvari - plus other faces like Nick Moran and Michael Byrne - are all established actors with a good body of work in their back catalogue. Alas, they are almost entirely wasted here - Gene Quinatno's hopelessly muddled script gives them nothing to do, since it's only interested in filling the gaps in as cursory a manner as possible between the action set-pieces. Only Roth does anything remotely three-dimensional with his character. It's peculiarly hard to follow what's going on much of the time, since all scenes involving exchanges of dialogue are clumsily fumbled. The fight choreography is at least pretty good, even if it does look rather amiss in a period swashbuckler like this. The climax, involving an elaborate series of stunts on ladders, is the highlight. Overall, though, The Musketeer is one big, unwieldy mess which never catches fire as a piece of entertainment.

Startlingly good debut from the Coen Brothers - twisted, enthralling and ingenious., 6 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There are two versions of the Coen Brothers' debut film Blood Simple – the theatrical print, plus a director's cut version which, curiously enough, is several minutes SHORTER than the other version. The Coens' director's cut is tightened up in terms of editing and includes a few sections of altered soundtrack - but in truth, they haven't improved what was already a very fine movie… thankfully they haven't worsened it either. And in either of its editions – whether it be the longer theatrical cut or the director's cut - it is still a film which oozes class.

Seedy Texan bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya, never better) is convinced that his pretty young wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is having an affair. He hires sleazy private dick Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to find out if he's right and, sure enough, Visser soon discovers Abby spending a night of passion in a roadside motel with one of Marty's bartenders, Ray (John Getz). Visser even gets a number of photographs of the lovers in compromising positions, just to prove what he has discovered. Later, burning with jealousy and hatred, Marty offers Visser $10,000 if he will kill the adulterous lovers. It is here where Blood Simple suddenly stops being a standard thriller about treachery and murder, and steps into a wickedly warped world of its own. To say more about the plot would be to give away some of the most cunning and well- crafted twists seen at the movies in many a long year. Let it be sufficient to say that every character finds themselves progressively sinking deeper into their own web of scheming and counter-scheming. Double crosses take place; murdered people turn out to be still alive; erroneous assumptions are made about who is out to harm who.

What makes Blood Simple so fascinating is the way it tangles cause and consequence with such ingenuity, creating a plot that is at once cunningly complicated yet simple to understand. A number of actors give career-best performances, notably Hedaya, Getz and Walsh. The latter especially is brilliantly memorable as the slimy, unscrupulous, maniacally giggling private eye whose moral compass is about as far off- centre as it's possible to get. McDormand is excellent too, as the main female character, who may – according to various moments of deliberate story disorientation – be either a femme fatale or an innocent victim of circumstance. Carter Burwell's evocative score adds to the atmosphere, while Barry Sonnenfeld provides fabulous cinematography (several years before becoming a director himself, of such titles as Men In Black and Get Shorty). The dialogue crackles thanks to the Coens' wonderful script, with Joel himself taking the lone directing duties and turning in a masterclass of suspense and unpredictability. The only flaw – an extremely minor one at that – is the inclusion of a couple of thriller clichés. Most prominent among these is the way these films always seem to feel compelled to incorporate a 'shock' nightmare sequence… and Blood Simple is no different, injecting a not-very-necessary scene towards the end where a dead character turns up in a dream to spook one of the others. Otherwise, the film skilfully avoids clichés, emerging a supremely absorbing, well-made and confident debut from two men who have spent the thirty years since giving us one brilliant film after another. If someone, somewhere, told the Coens to "start as you mean to go on", they certainly did just that, hitting the heights at the first time of asking with this quite wonderful little thriller.

Interesting and well-handled, if slightly flawed, horror from the folks at Tigon., 11 July 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Freddie Francis finds himself working for Tigon on the ambitious, albeit flawed, horror opus The Creeping Flesh. It's always fun to see Cushing and Lee working together and this is no exception, although it's fair to say that they don't get enough shared screen time in this particular film. Nevertheless, The Creeping Flesh is an extremely interesting and well-made offering. Ultimately it bites off more than it can chew, but there's still plenty of enjoyment to be had from a viewing of it.

Victorian scientist Emmanuel Hildern (Cushing) returns from New Guinea with the skeletal remains of a humanoid creature. His excitement about the creature is tempered somewhat when he discovers his wife has died while he has been away. Not that their relationship was a normal one anyway – Mrs Hildern had been put into a lunatic asylum run by Emmanuel's brother, James (Christopher Lee), on account of her unquenchable sexual appetite. Furthermore, Emmanuel's daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron), has no idea that her mother has been locked away, believing that she died years ago. Whilst examining the skeleton, Emmanuel discovers if it comes into contact with water its flesh and blood cells are able to regenerate. In other words, the skeleton can regrow flesh when wet. Believing the creature may be the 'Evil One' mentioned in the ancient prophecies of the tribes of New Guinea, Emmanuel decides to investigate further. He discovers strange cells in the creature's biological make-up and concludes they may be a germ-like form of evil, suggesting that evil itself is a virus like any other, as easy to 'catch' as a common cold. Emmanuel attempts to use the cells to create a vaccine against evil. He tests it on his daughter, believing that she may need to be protected in order to prevent her from turning out like her mother. Alas, his tests have the opposite effect and soon Penelope becomes a dangerous murderess intent on luring others to their death. Meanwhile, James plots to steal the New Guinean skeleton for himself… but makes the mistake of attempting to spirit it away during a rainstorm.

As one can see, there's an awful lot going on in The Creeping Flesh considering that it is merely a 94 minute horror film. We have brotherly rivalry and betrayal; messed-up family politics; tribal prophecies; a flesh-growing monster; and the radical concept of evil as a contagious illness rather than an immoral mind-set. Where The Creeping Flesh comes undone somewhat is in its doomed effort to tie so many disparate components together into a coherent whole.Fortunately, the good points outweigh the flaws, resulting in a film that is worth watching in spite of any weaknesses. Flawed it may well be, but The Creeping Flesh still has much to admire. It takes a while to click into gear, biding its time in setting up the main 'evil-on-the-loose' story thread. However, once the consequences of Emmanuel's experimentations become clear - with Penelope going on a murderous rampage - things become exciting and compelling. Plus, of course, running alongside this thread we have the scheme hatched by Lee's character to steal the creature, not realising the potentially catastrophic result of taking it outside in the rain. With its steady but intriguing build-up, disturbing apocalyptic ending and plenty of atmospheric chills in between, The Creeping Flesh is a film that undeniably rewards patient viewing.

Fairly feeble peplum entry - of curiosity interest for its unexpected leading man., 29 May 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Pre-stardom Roger Moore is preposterously cast as Romulus, the founder of Rome, in this enjoyably awful peplum made by a largely Italian cast and crew. It's quite something to witness Moore - skinny-armed, skinny- legged and curly-haired – issuing orders to massed ranks of horny Roman citizens as they plead with him to allow women into their lives. The film is undoubtedly cheap and feeble stuff… but there's a degree of innocent charm to be found in some of these old sword 'n' sandal offerings, especially ones which feature a future superstar in a role which will one day come back to haunt him. Romulus And The Sabines (or whatever title you know it by, for it has many… Rape Of The Sabines, L'Enlevement Des Sabines, El Rapto De Las Sabinas, etc. etc.) is definitely amusing on a curiosity level – if you are a collector of Moore's movies, for instance, this long-lost obscurity is an irresistible hoot.

As the story begins, Rome is little more than a village under the early stages of construction by various fugitives, travellers and vagabonds – all of them male - who have chosen to swear allegiance to King Romulus (Roger Moore). After months of hard toil, the men are growing weary and disillusioned. In particular, they long for women to be brought into their lives and rightly point out that their efforts will be for nought if no babies are being born to populate their newly built kingdom. Reluctantly, Romulus agrees to submit to their demands and asks Titus (Folco Lulli) - king of the neighbouring kingdom of Sabinia - if he will donate some of his women for marriage to the men of Rome. Titus refuses and instead sends a cartload of pigs to the Romans, greatly angering them. But Romulus comes up with another plan, to kidnap the Sabine women by force and bring them back to Rome to repopulate the rapidly expanding nation. Things are complicated further when Romulus finds himself falling desperately in love with Rhea (Mylène Demongeot) a vestal virgin and daughter of King Titus. Meanwhile, the Sabinian soldiers prepare to attack Rome and free their women… but the question is: do the women truly want to be rescued?

There is some incredibly banal dialogue in the film at times. "Hey! There's no need to pull my hair!" declares a Sabine girl, rather prissily, as a Roman attempts to drag her away from her home and family forever. "She's a vestal virgin, Romulus. We have consecrated her to the Gods", warns Rhea's mother as he lecherously ogles the young princess. "Why didn't you consecrate her to the SONS of the Gods?" Romulus ruefully retorts, referring to his self-proclaimed title as the son of Mars. The whole film is stuffed with similarly over-ripe exchanges. Some of the crowd scenes and battle sequences betray the film's ultra-low budget, but there are a handful of decent moments amid the morass – the kidnapping of the Sabine women is enjoyably handled, and the climactic clash between the Sabinians and Romans (prematurely aborted at the discovery of a baby's birth which unites the bloodline of both kingdoms) is competently done. In other aspects the film is something of an embarrassment, especially its cringeworthy attempts to inject humour via a short-sighted Roman ambassador whose visual impairment results in numerous zany pratfalls. Overall, there can be no serious argument that Romulus And The Sabines has genuine artistic merit, nor that it is a neglected gem, but strictly on a curiosity level it has a degree of charm and interest.

Odd-couple romance with a refreshingly unusual locale. Better than its rotten reputation suggests., 28 May 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A love story based on a novel by George Feifer, The Girl From Petrovka doesn't totally work but it doesn't totally fail either. The unfamiliar backdrop of Cold War-era Moscow - where paranoia and secrecy could be the difference between free life or a stint in a Siberian labour camp – adds something new and interesting to an otherwise familiar 'odd-couple' romance. The film benefits too from good performances, especially Hal Holbrook as the male lead, Goldie Hawn as the female lead, and Anthony Hopkins as a secretive wheeler-dealer who is a friend to them both. There is a remarkable story about Hopkins' role in the film which goes like this. When he learned he had got the part, he spent a day trawling through the second-hand bookshops of London in search of the original George Feifer novel which he wanted to read to get a better idea of the character. His search proved unsuccessful so he headed to the railway station to catch a train home… and there, on a seat, lay a discarded copy of the very book he had been looking for. More extraordinary still, when he opened it he discovered it had Feifer's name inside, and was a personal copy the author had mislaid some years earlier!

American journalist Joe (Hal Holbrook) is a correspondent in Russia during the Cold War. Mourning the recent death of his wife, he decides to sell her belongings and asks his friend Kostya (Anthony Hopkins) to help him find a buyer. While selling off the things at a sort of unofficial bric-a-brac sale, Joe meets beautiful and mysterious ballerina Oktyabrina (Goldie Hawn). Oktyabrina lives in Moscow illegally, without the necessary papers, and runs the continual risk of being captured and sent to a labour camp by the authorities. Despite this, she is a vivacious and free-spirited individual whose carefree breeziness quickly attracts Joe. Beneath the façade, though, her personality proves a conundrum – outwardly warm yet privately stand- offish; eager to love yet simultaneously afraid of it. Eventually they do fall in love, but their relationship draws unwanted attention and leads to an unhappy outcome for the young ballerina.

Nicely scored by Henry Mancini and grandly shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, the film is pleasant fare despite its rather lowly critical reputation. Holbrook is more of a character-actor than a leading man, and certainly not your typical romantic lead… nevertheless he is very good as the lonely and cynical reporter living in a place and a manner far removed from home. Hawn is surprisingly good too as the freewheeling ballerina, a rare serious role for her (complete with decent accent). Sometimes the script is a little hard to follow, especially since the ultra-secret and paperwork-obsessed aspect of Russian life depicted here altered dramatically when the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War came to an end. One can't help but suspect some familiarity with the book - or, at least, a detailed grasp of communist policies and lifestyles at that time - might be necessary for the viewer to fully appreciate the finer points of several scenes. The film's downbeat climax certainly packs an emotional wallop, however… and overall it provides a diverting couple of hours' viewing. A likable curiosity.

Mismatched duo become friends against the odds… familiar odd-couple yarn, harmlessly done., 28 May 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Wouldn't we all like to be blessed with the longevity of George Burns? The actor lived to the rip old age of 100 and remained a picture of health almost up to the point of his death from cardiac arrest. Here he looks sprightly and mischievous at the age of 83, in an offbeat comedy- drama from writer-director Leonard Stern. "A tale of two juvenile delinquents" announced the theatrical poster, the other 'delinquent' being teenaged newcomer Brooke Shields, playing a young runaway orphan sheltered by octogenarian Burns from a drug-pusher.

Bill Grant (George Burns) is an old vaudeville performer still dining- out on memories of glory-days-which-never-quite-were. He lives alone in a large house, and sticks to a series of tried-and-trusted daily routines which infuriate his daughter Shirl (Lorraine Gary) and son-in- law Harris (Nicholas Coaster). One of Bill's many daily duties is to visit his old friend Max (Burl Ives), wasting away in vegetative silence in a home for the elderly. One day, Bill discovers a naked teenager named Kate (Brooke Shields) hiding in the trunk of his car. He takes her home and, bit by bit, pieces together that she is an orphan from a troubled background who has wound up working for small-time drug-pusher Demesta (William Russ). After stealing a small fortune from him, Kate is now on the run. An unlikely friendship forms between the lonely old man and the endangered young kid, but there's many a misunderstanding to overcome (not least being the suspicions of Bill's neighbours that he is some sort of dirty old, pervert keeping the girl against her will) before everything is resolved.

The film has an air of staginess about it, with much of the action taking place at the single location of Burns' house. Occasional scenes are based elsewhere, but other than that one could easily imagine this being sourced from a stage play (which, surprisingly enough, it isn't). Burns is very much the focal character – he has the best lines, the most interesting back-story, and the most natural charm of the main characters. Shields bounces off him nicely, even if her character is often less than likable. By the two-thirds point, the story has pretty much run its course and things limp rather blandly to a predictable and totally 'pat' conclusion, but during its early stages the film is easy- going fun.

There's nothing in Just You And Me, Kid to compel you to watch it… but neither is there any reason to deliberately avoid it. Best summed up as harmless fluff.

De Sade (1969)
A wholly unerotic, unstimulating depiction of the dying fantasies of its disreputable title character., 20 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Considering that it is penned by the late, great Richard Matheson and directed by Cy Endfield (of Zulu fame), with additional scenes helmed by Roger Corman, the credentials seem to be in place for De Sade to be a rather fascinating movie. The talent behind the camera is more than matched in front of it too, with a cast of some distinction including Keir Dullea, John Huston, Lilli Palmer and Senta Berger. Despite the promising elements, alas, the film is an absolute damp squib. It fails as art, it fails as exploitation; and as entertainment it offers virtually nothing. The film doesn't so much miss an opportunity as collapse with scarcely a whimper.

Fugitive the Marquis De Sade (Keir Dullea) seeks refuge at his ancestral home, where he is persuaded to watch a bizarre play arranged for his entertainment by his uncle, the Abbe (John Huston). The play depicts a distorted recount of the Marquis's own life, and is intercut with his own fragmentary flashbacks to his earlier life and debaucheries. Much is made of the De Sade's uneasy link to Madame De Montreuil (Lilli Palmer), mother of two daughters, both of whom have relationships with the young Marquis. He reluctantly marries the eldest sister, Renee (Anna Massey), even though he finds her dull and plain and lusts much more openly after her younger sister Anne (Senta Berger). De Sade mistreats Renee horribly, and is involved in debauchery after debauchery, orgy after orgy, scandal after scandal; bringing great shame upon the family and earning himself a reputation as a debased and depraved individual.

So, where does a film about such a potentially intriguing subject go so horribly wrong? The blame can be apportioned quite evenly – first comes Matheson's script: a dreadful mess which attempts, unsuccessfully, to evoke a nightmarish dream, fragmented memories of a dying man. Second is the lacklustre performance of Dullea as the title character, a crashing bore as interpreted by the actor (he is totally upstaged by everyone around him, particularly Palmer). And thirdly, the attempts to inject permissive, orgiastic and titillating excesses – sex and depravity chief amongst them – are woefully unconvincing. Dullea romps beneath the bedsheets with several women at once, pouring wine into their mouths while gorging on grapes, but the overwhelming impression one gets is of something utterly unerotic and unstimulating. The character looks more like a 'Jack the Lad' - a 'swinger' for want of a better word – than a dangerous and perverted corrupter of young souls. The film is at least richly photographed, with lavish sets and costumes, but these touches do not save it. They merely nudge it a notch or two above the dreaded one- star rating that it would otherwise deserve. Whichever way you look at it De Sade is a notable failure, a film as forgotten and obscure as it deserves to be,

Safe, schematic feel-good story - slickly done and easy-to-watch, though entirely unremarkable., 11 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The true story of a group of Yorkshire women who try to raise funds in memory of one their husbands, taken too soon by leukaemia, forms the basis for Calendar Girls. The real-life women were members of a small regional branch of the Women's Institute and decided to create a nude calendar rather than the usual postcard-style pictures of churches and bridges in the local area. The calendar was an unprecedented success, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds and becoming a symbol of hope and inspiration for people affected by terminal illnesses In this version, certain character names and locations are altered and a subplot is added about a breakdown in the relationship of the two main characters behind the creation of the calendar. Overall, though, the film tries to tell the story quite truthfully in that typically subtle British way where 'low-key' is prioritised over 'bombastic', and the humour is all very polite and well-mannered rather than coarse and OTT.

The Women's Institute of Knapely is a small community group attended by a number of rural Yorkshire-women. Chris Harper (Helen Mirren) and Annie Clarke (Julie Walters) are regulars, although they often find the group meetings somewhat dull. The group chairwoman Marie (Geraldine James) sticks to her rigidly 'proper' style of running the group, disapproving of anything that might seem controversial or out of the ordinary. The group's latest plans centre on the forthcoming Christmas calendar, which will be yet another collection of pretty local landscapes. Following the death of Annie's husband John (John Alderton) from leukaemia, she and Chris decide to raise funds to buy a sofa to commemorate his passing. They suggest presenting the forthcoming calendar as a series of nude photos of themselves and, despite initial scepticism, manage to persuade ten other women to join the cause. The inevitable reservations about whether what they are doing is arty or sleazy soon come to the fore. Against all expectations, the calendar is a runaway success and the lives of the women involved are changed beyond all recognition. They go overnight from unassuming rural housewives to the toast of the country; and the media is quick to descend upon them in the eager search for a feel-good story. The women are even invited to Hollywood. But with this new-found fame and celebrity comes a strain on their friendship which threatens to change some things for the worse…

Calendar Girls is one of those very safe, very schematic films which knows exactly what the audience expects and delivers it with complete efficiency. It isn't ground-breaking, it isn't an emotional tour-de- force, it isn't an earth-shattering cinematic experience – but then it's not a film that was seeking to be any of those things in the first place. The aim here is simply to recount an inspiring true story with warmth and humour. On that level alone, the film does exactly what it says on the tin. Mirren and Walters provide fine foil for each other as the leads, with reliable support from an ensemble of British talent including the likes of Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie, Ciaran Hinds and Philip Glenister. Directed with workmanlike efficiency by Nigel Cole, the film was budgeted at around $10 million and had a worldwide gross in the region of $100 million. A very respectable profit indeed for a small film about some lumpy, bumpy women from North Yorkshire whipping their kits off for a charity calendar.

Reasonably enjoyable caveman flick, easily the best of Hammer's forays into the 'prehistoric man' sub-genre., 9 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"People did not live in the days of the dinosaurs. You must realise that the picture is being made for entertainment, not for professors…. I think one has to accept that licence with an 'entertainment picture', because it's not supposed to be a documentary," declared Ray Harryhausen. Before this film, dinosaurs in movies were created by shooting lizards in close-up, with extra body-bits glued onto them to create the desired effect. Here, Harryhausen uses his considerable talent as a stop-motion animator to create numerous monsters of the past, including an allosaurus, brontosaurus, ceratosaurus, triceratops and pterodactyl.

One Million Years B.C follows the adventures of a caveman named Tumak (John Richardson). The son of a tribe leader, he is banished from his tribe following a fight with his father over a piece of meat. He wanders alone into the wilderness and encounters various strange creatures, before eventually stumbling across a more advanced tribe who have developed things like music, painting, jewellery-making and agriculture. He is welcomed by these new people and lives among them, quickly catching the eye of a cavegirl named Loana (Raquel Welch). Meanwhile back at Tumak's birth tribe, his father is overthrown as leader by the ruthless Sakana (Percy Herbert), Tumak's treacherous brother. Tumak is forced to leave his new tribe after attempting to steal a spear, and is joined on his wanderings by Loana (who has fallen in love with him). They have various adventures before eventually making it back to Tumak's native home. Upon discovering what has happened during his absence, Tumak challenges his brother for leadership of the tribe. The final battle is interrupted by a massive volcanic eruption which wipes out many of the people in its path.

The film is the best of the series, helped along by a solid performance from Richardson as the adventurous caveman and Harryhausen's sterling work in the effects department. Welch is on hand to provide the 'eye- candy' while Martine Beswick provides extra sex appeal as an animalistic girl from Tumak's tribe. Also worthy of note is the score by Mario Nascimbene, a beautiful blend of siren-like wailing and clashing cymbals, reminiscent of the operatic music of the spaghetti westerns. It's probably the best score of the entire prehistoric series. On a more negative note, One Million Years B.C. is the ugliest of the films at a photographic level. Despite promising Canary Islands locations, there is something unattractive about the cinematography and the film's poor use of colour. The story structure also becomes a little wearisome towards the end; an endless cycle of walking around – dinosaur attack – walking around – dinosaur attack – walking around – dinosaur attack. Overall, though, this is a good film with enough going for it to make its weaknesses forgivable. Is it the best film Hammer made? No… but it is a lot of fun, and Harryhausen's contributions alone make it worthwhile. We all know it's bogus as history and repetitive as a story, but One Million Years B.C. works well as what it was intended - that is: wild, sexy, adventure-filled entertainment.

Extremely poor, often incomprehensible and feebly characterised filmed version of an interesting true story., 9 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Director Stephen Frears and star Bruce Willis seem to demonstrate an uncanny gift for inconsistency. Frears' work ranges from the sublime (Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Launderette, The Grifters) to the ridiculous (Accidental Hero, Mary Reilly). Likewise, Willis frequently lurches from the terrific to the terrible – every Die Hard is cancelled out by a Hudson Hawk; every Pulp Fiction spawns a Color Of Night. Given the involvement of Frears and Willis, one would be right to anticipate only two possible outcomes for Lay The Favorite – it's either going to be very good or very bad. Sadly, in this case the film falls into the very bad category. It can't just be chalked down as another dud in the Bruce Willis canon either – a number of other good actors sink with this ship, including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson and Vince Vaughn.

Tallahassee lap-dancer Beth Raymer (Rebecca Hall) wants to change her life so, with the blessing of her father (Corbin Bernsen), she heads off to Las Vegas to seek work as a cocktail waitress. Her American dream doesn't turn out quite the way she planned, and pretty soon Beth finds herself desperate for whatever employment she can find (as long as it doesn't involve getting naked). Enter professional gambler Dink Heimowitz (Bruce Willis). Dink bets on anything and everything, placing tens of thousands of dollars per day on various sporting outcomes. Such is the extent of his gambling that he requires a team of lackeys to man the phones in his office. After displaying an unexpected knack for numbers, Beth is given the chance to work for Dink's organisation. She is quickly seduced by this lifestyle of high risk and instant fortune. The rest of the film traces Beth's adventure in the pro-gambling profession. She falls in and out of love with Dink; has various run-ins with Dink's savage-tongued wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones); falls for a sensible and well-organised New York journalist named Jeremy (Joshua Jackson); is fired and re-hired several times by Dink; and ultimately ends up working for highly unscrupulous New York bookie Rosie (Vince Vaughn), who puts her in charge of the Curacao limb of his illegal gambling racket.

From a quick scan of the plot synopsis, there's no obvious reason for the film to fail. It has a strong cast, an eventful storyline, and is set in the fascinating world of pro-gambling. The components are certainly in place for a good movie, so where does it all go so horribly wrong? The biggest drawback is the character of Beth, presented in the script as a totally brainless bimbo. Every now and then she displays a moment of sudden ingenuity which rings completely untrue. The entire story is about Beth (she IS the story, in effect) yet is by far the most irritating character in it. Having said that, none of the actors really seem to be firing on all cylinders. Willis seems jaded, Vaughn merely rehashes his loud and brash comedy routine for the umpteenth time, and Jackson gets a boring role and looks bored playing it. Zeta-Jones has slightly more to get her teeth into as the sharp-tongued rich bitch Tulip (some viewers might get a kick out of hearing her screech the C- word at her long suffering husband), but later in the film her character mellows out somewhat and quickly loses her appeal as a result. It seems ironic that Zeta-Jones chose this of all films to return to screen acting after a three year hiatus… can this really be the best offer that came along? The incomprehensible gambling jargon makes many scenes all but impossible to follow. Worse still, the plot never builds to a dramatic conflict worth caring about. Things just amble around meaninglessly for an hour and a half or so, then the film ends. Overall, Lay The Favorite is a waste of time and talent. The book upon which it is based (Lay The Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling) by the real Beth Raymer is reportedly a rather fascinating read. If that's the case, put your chips on the book… because the film is an utter donkey.

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