SHREK THE THIRD:
KING OF THE SWAMP * * *
Cert U, 92 mins
It's not been a good year for threequels. First there was the bloated, underwritten Spider-Man 3. Then came Pirates which, while admittedly an improvement on part two, was at times narratively nigh-incomprehensible. And now everyone's favourite green ogre returns in a film that exists only to send the box office tills kerchinging.
Accepting responsibility is the key theme here. Unwilling to take on the crown of Far Far Away when his froggy father-in-law croaks (John Cleese milking his death scene like a true ham) when he'd much rather be back in his swamp, Shrek (Mike Myers, sounding bored) sets off to unload the job on Fiona's (Cameron Diaz) distant cousin Arthur Pendragon (Justin Timberlake), a high school slacker in Worcestershire.
Artie only agrees to the throne because it means he can quit school and stop being bullied, and quickly has second thoughts when danger threatens.
Meanwhile, Shrek's having problems coming to terms with news he's going to be a father and all that entails.
Unfortunately, other than a nightmare of pooing and puking mini-ogres, neither of these storylines suggest much enthusiasm on the part of the writers.
Indeed, so desperate do things become, the screenplay resorts to the old body swap scenario when, thanks to a bungled spell by aged hippie Merlin (Eric Idle, groan), Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss (Antonio Banderas) 'hilariously' switch places.
Having already being given little to do as Shrek's travelling companions, this frankly pointless development merely serves to rein in their individual humour even further.
Mercifully, developments back in Far Far Away manage to keep the film's comic heart beating.
Rising to the occasion, Rupert Everett's a treat as Prince Charming, reduced to reenacting his regal ambitions in bad dinner theatre. Deciding enough's enough, he recruits the fairy tale losers and villains, urging them (in a plot line almost identical to Happily N'ever After, released in America last year) to rewrite their storybook endings.
Staging a coup, Charming imprisons Fiona, the Queen (Julie Andrews casually humming My Favourite Things) and bickering divas princesses Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzle and Sleeping Beauty, thereby giving rise to the other jolt of inspiration (though even this recycles a visual gag from the first film) as they become a fairy tale kung fuing Charlie's Angels.
The animation is, of course, brilliant, there's some very funny pop culture jokes and background throwaways (check the icing scars on the Gingerbread Man's legs where they were stitched back on), and, okay, the dragon-donkey babies are cute.
But there's none of the emotional poignancy of the previous films with their themes of acceptance and outsiders (remember the lump in the throat as John Cale's version of Hallelujah struck up?), and there's just too much relentless knockabout and self-referential smugness to avoid the whole thing feeling tired and empty of purpose.
And a showdown that relies on Shrek appealing to the baddies' better natures? Come on!
With $300m already in the coffers, a Shrek 4 has inevitably already been, er, green lit, but really that's by Far Far Enough.
HOSTEL: PART II * * *
Cert 18, 94 mins
The leading proponent of hardcore horror, writer-director Eli Roth returns for another Tarantino-endorsed bout of gore as more American backpackers are lured to Slovakia to become the victims of wealthy sickos paying to get their kicks killing people.
This time round it's the turn of the girls to get sliced and diced, as three vacationing chums, obscenely rich but grounded heiress Beth (Lauren German), flirty wild child Whitney (Bijou Phillips) and naive homely virgin Lorna (Heather Matarazzo, excellent), are persuaded by their Paris art class model (Vera Jordanova) to visit the Slovakian spas.
Unknown to them, they've become the latest lots in an auction by the mastermind behind the black-market death club's snuff factory.
Among the winning bidders are mouthy blustering American tycoon Todd (Richard Bugi) and his hen-pecked buddy Stuart (Roger Bart), both of whom see the chance of murdering some stranger as a way of boosting their machismo and self-esteem. One of them will get cold feet.
Whereas the first film kept the clients anonymous, here Roth affords the pair back stories, giving an extra layer of moral complexity, while also making the victims far more sympathetic and rounded characters than the original's Ugly Americans.
Thematically too, he's deepened the narrative, exploring the corrupting nature of wealth and the innate murderous potential within everyone, sub-texts forcefully slammed home in the film's gruesome last act twist.
Of course, few are going to be buying a ticket for a night of socio-economic commentary, so it's a good thing Roth's loaded up with scenes that make the original look like a Tom & Jerry cartoon, one quite literal bloodbath is likely to prove hard to shake. And yet, even here, he proves a sly commentator on his audience's complicit vicarious depravity, deliberately cutting away from one crucial image of gruesome butchery.
Those left feeling frustrated at not seeing the bloody effects, should seriously question their mental health issues on the way home.
THE FLYING SCOTSMAN * * *
Cert 15 105 mins
Touted as Chariots of Fire meets Rocky on a bike, Douglas Mackinnon's workmanlike biopic of Scottish cycling champion Graeme Obree falls well short of the comparisons but remains a watchable account of a little known episode in British sporting history.
In one of the best performances, Jonny Lee Miller is Obree, a Glasgow bike messenger and amateur racing cyclist who sets out to break the World Hour Record, held for nine years by Francesco Moser.
Less than a day after failing at the first attempt, on July 17, 1993, he returned to the Hamar Velodrome in Norway to try again. This time he triumphed, and did so riding a custom built bike of his own design, part cannibalised from domestic appliances, and adopting a radical 'tuck' riding position.
Both of which immediately raised the hackles of the sport's conservative governing body. Here emblemised by uptight Ernst Hagemann (Steven Berkoff), it set out to prevent Obree from taking part in further such events, attempting to disqualify his bike and, when that failed, even inventing rules to ban both his 'tuck' and subsequent 'Superman' riding positions.
Apparently at one point someone even said Obree's nose and ears were illegal. And they weren't joking.
On top of this, Obree was also battling financial problems and manic-depression, a disorder that, as seen in the film's prologue, led to several suicide attempts.
To its credit, the film doesn't shy from the darker elements of Obree's story and personality. Yet neither does it achieve the emotional heft it deserves, only really tapping into the depths of his feelings of inadequacy as he cowers inside his house while a now-grown childhood bully verbally abuses him through the letter box.
There's humour too, not least in the increasingly ludicrous machinations of the World Cycling Federation and a moment when a local businessman starts stripping off while discussing potential sponsorship.
However, despite able support turns from Laura Fraser as Obree's loyal wife Anne, Billy Boyd in the composite role of friend and manager Malky McGovern and Brian Cox as Baxter, the priest who mentored him and whose own story affords an additional note of tragedy, it's all rather perfunctorily written.
Avoiding melodramatic Hollywood excess in favour of understated old-fashioned British cinema is all well and good, but a little more emotional pedal pushing might not have gone amiss.
THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN * * *
Cert 15 123 mins
A diplomat's son who went to an English boarding school, John Graham Mellor was an unlikely candidate for one of punk's founding fathers. And yet, journeying through art school (where he rechristened himself Woody after Woody Guthrie) and then reinventing himself as part of the London squat scene to form the rockabilly 101'ers, Mellor would emerge as Joe Strummer, frontman for The Clash.
Unquestionably the most inventive of the New Wave bands, they quickly moved beyond three chord thrash and angry vitriol to embrace reggae, ska, international politics and triple albums. But within three years, internal conflicts, drugs and drink had destroyed them, casting Strummer adrift, stewing in booze and bitterness, briefly working with The Pogues and making a failed acting career (though he was rather good in Mystery Train) before finally getting his life and music back on track with The Mescaleros.
He died in 2002, age 50, part-way through recording their third album.
All of this and more is exhaustively detailed in Julien Temple's love letter documentary, chronologically charting Strummer's life and career, praising his idealism and determination but also acknowledging his faults (on reinventing himself as a punk he cut off all contact with former friends) and at times ruthlessly competitive streak.
Although Paul Simonon declined to participate, the other Clash members join an extensive list of interviewees (Bono, Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp and Bernie Rhodes among them) providing tributes and anecdotes, a burned out Topper Headon especially poignant in recalling being ejected from the band and how Strummer slept with his girlfriend.
Rather cleverly, Temple weaves in various movie clips as commentary on Strummer's life and uses Joe's own BBC World Service broadcasts to provide a personal narration from beyond the grave. The interviews around the campfire also serve as a subtle reminder of the charitable foundation that form the Strummerville legacy.
There's some amazing archive material here, so it's especially frustrating that, as with his equally impressionistic Glastonbury, Temple persistently refuses to identify any of the talking heads. Fine if you know the background, but frustrating if you happen to be a new convert coming to this having bought the recent singles compilation and looking to learn more.
SHUTTER * *
Cert 15 95 mins, subtitled
The Japanese scarefest explosion having died away of late, at least partly suffocated by rubbish American remakes, many suggest Thailand has picked up the Asian horror mantle. However, recyling the same overly familiar images is hardly the way to go.
Case in point, this ghost-story thriller in which photographer Ton and girlfriend Jane run over a young woman who emerges from nowhere on the deserted, dark road. Without getting out of the car, Ton urges Jane to drive off.
Not long afterwards, a ghostly face starts appearing on his photographs and assorted friends start throwing themselves off tall buildings.
Suspecting he's holding back, Jane pushes Ton to reveal the spectre is a former college girlfriend, who vanished some years before the hit and run.
Yes, it's the white-faced girl ghost with the long dark hair and a creepy habit of slithering along the floor, appearing in mirrors and crawling out of wash basins, pursuing the living to make them pay for what they did.
Part Ring, part Grudge and part pretty much every other Asian ghost story from recent years. There's a clever pay off that shows a touch of originality among the clichés and the use of real ghost photographs gives it an extra frisson. But while it's undeniably well made, only those who've never seen any of the Japanese blueprints will find it remotely scary.