Monday, April 26, 2010

Last week's reviews and capsules

The Joneses (15 cert, 98 min) ★★★

Centurion (15 cert, 97 min) ★★

Agora (12A cert, 126 min) ★★

Any film which casts Demi Moore as capitalism incarnate, which The Joneses does, gets points for figuring out at least one way to use her. Uneasy though we may feel playing spot the surgery, it almost fits her role as a one-woman advertising campaign: she hardly needs act to make it the best thing she’s done since Disclosure (1994).

The film starts out pert and amusing, like a dark sitcom. Moore and the nimble David Duchovny are all health and wealth as they move into an upscale neighbourhood with their two teenage kids (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth, both much too old for these roles, but no matter).

It’s quickly clear none of the Joneses are actually related. They’re paid agents in a stealth marketing scheme, their mission to turn heads, show off clothes, cars, gadgets to the admiring golf and pedicure set. Duchovny’s Steve is the rookie in the operation – he needs to boost his sales. Moore’s Kate, who won’t even let him sleep in the same bed, might reconsider if those numbers go up.

Writer-director Derrick Borte’s conceit is a fun one to be in on, but basically too synthetic to have the satirical bite it wants – it’s more a playful fantasy of consumerist whim than an edgy exposé. You know where it has to go – down some Damascene route of realising this whole scam, and consumption in general, is bad for the soul. It’s just a matter of time before everyone starts slapping their wrists, if not slitting them, but the spree is entertaining while it lasts. C+

There’s much grunting in Centurion, slicing of major arteries and clambering around on mossy Scottish hillsides. There’s also the kind of dialogue you only wish members of Rome’s ill-fated Ninth Legion had plausibly uttered. “This is Hadrian’s big f***ing plan? A wall?”. Quick memos scribbled on stone would have Latin teachers shaking their heads in horror.

More to the point, the whole thing’s a crudely reductive excuse to pit Romans against Picts and go splatter-mad, without building much in the way of suspense or anything in the way of character. A faintly disappointing Michael Fassbender and fellow survivors of the decimated Ninth team up to rescue their general (Dominic West, on good burly form), but it all goes horribly wrong, and they find themselves preyed upon by woad-smeared savages. Etain (Olga Kurylenko), who is meant to be the scariest huntress in all Caledonia, is more scowly irritant than fearsome villainness. It’s not a disaster, but it’s cheesy and generic stuff from Neil Marshall – too much guilt and not enough pleasure. C

You can’t fault Agora, a saga of ancient Alexandria, astronomy and religious strife, for gumption or ambition – just plain common sense. It’s of some egghead interest, but who on earth paid for it? Rachel Weisz, fetching in Egyptian shawls, stars as the philosopher Hypatia, who appears to have cracked gravity but not yet how the planets and sun interrelate. The director, Alejandro Amenábar, has a crashing great beef with Christian fundamentalism and the threat to scientific learning – everyone grabs what scrolls they can before the library’s ransacked. Meanwhile, the ridiculously handsome Max Minghella moons around as a lovestruck slave, vying with snooty-pants student Oscar Isaac for Hypatia’s affections.

Some clunky captions lurch us forward an hour in, and it’s still not clear what Amenábar thinks he’s doing – there are a few piercing images amid a lot of patience-taxing marketplace dust-ups, and some of the worst barnets in Christendom. Visibly recut, the movie has too little time to do itself intelligent justice – I wish it had been a miniseries. C

La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (PG cert, 159 min) ★★★★★

A long but enrapturing documentary from the great Frederick Wiseman, this majestic film follows seven ballets from rehearsal through to performance, but there’s as much focus on sequins as pliés, catering as choreography. All is captured in this director’s famously quiet and unobtrusive style, achieving a measured tempo and feel for the subject which will beguile dance fans young and old. A

Extract (15 cert, 92 min) ★★

Mike (Beavis & Butthead) Judge struggles to make the grade with this ambling, half-hearted comedy about small business. Jason Bateman’s nicely beleaguered charm gets it off the ground, but Judge wastes the gifted Kristen Wiig as his bored wife, and Mila Kunis’s conniving con girl never earns her screen time. Fairly amiable, but that’s it. C

It’s a Wonderful Afterlife (12A cert, 100 min) ★

Gurinder Chadha serves up a trainwreck romcom about unwed Roopi (Goldy Notay, deserving better) whose mum goes to murderous lengths to find her a suitor. The paste-grey apparitions of dead parents seem to be gunning for Ealing-esque dark laughs that never materialise, and a demented riff on the climax of Carrie hardly scoops us out of the doldrums. F

Cherrybomb (15 cert, 86 min) ★★

Rupert Grint doesn’t disgrace himself as a horny Irish teen – colour me surprised – and his co-stars are wayward but promising. So it’s a pity this reasonably polished slice of Skins-style youthsploitation makes such a deeply fake and undangerous lurch into pills-and-vandalism melodrama. C

The Calling (15 cert, 105 min) ★

Rum as a barrel of Sailor Jerry’s, Jan Dunn’s comedy-drama about Benedictine nuns in Ramsgate has Brenda Blethyn trying her best, Susannah York making half-deranged Sapphic overtures, and Rita Tushingham digging up mutant carrots. It ought to be set in Barking. D

Sunday, April 18, 2010

This week's capsules, uncut

Dear John (12A cert, 102 min)

Existing in a world where sunsets go on for charmed weeks at a time, farewells are uniformly moist, and bouts of terminal cancer are more dramatically convenient than they are sad, Dear John, it hardly needs saying, is the latest epistolary romance from the pen of Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook, Message in a Bottle). All that’s missing from that title is the word “oh”. Channing Tatum stars as a soldier on leave, comporting himself in typical Tatum-ic fashion as if it were a physical burden to be swimming in so much testosterone. He meets Amanda Seyfried on a beach, and impresses her with his ability to create fire. “Very primal.” He’s also good at carpentry. She, an idealist, plans to open an equestrian summer camp for autistic kids. 9/11 intervenes, and he’s called to Afghanistan. Anguish looms, but all Lasse Hallström’s gauzy montages are powerless to coax a believable adult relationship out of this pair, so it’s hard to worry. Instead, they do that thing where you close one eye and cover the moon with your thumb, acting as if it were a thrilling discovery for our race. Are they six? D

Repo Men (18 cert, 111 min)

Nothing to do with Alex Cox’s 1984 cult comedy Repo Man – more’s the pity – this ghoulish and wildly illogical sci-fi thriller is all about a mega-corporatised dystopian near-future in which artificial organs are mortgaged out to the needy. Fail to make the repayments, and Jude Law and Forest Whitaker will come round to collect with a scalpel. The slicing and dicing is unsparingly full-on to the point where hardened critics were hiding behind their hands, and the ending is a daylight steal from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But it’s the gruellingly slow pace which really does this in. D

City of Life and Death (15 cert, 135 min)

Very possibly the war film of the year, Lu Chuan’s excellent picture about the Rape of Nanking has a lacerating widescreen immediacy, but also a true artist’s gravity and tact. It’s meticulously assembled and quite devastating, with a particularly impressive first hour. Surveying the mass slaughter of Chinese POWs in silvery monochrome, the director gives these horrors the ghostly, ineradicable weight of historical fact, and achieves humane switches of perspective on both sides which put Saving Private Ryan to shame. B+

Boogie Woogie (15 cert, 90 min)

We learn that the London art world is dog-eat-dog – don’t stop the presses – in a tonal catastrophe which keeps kissing the air and calling it satire. Danny Huston’s Jay Jopling impression consists mainly of affected guffaws every few seconds, and Gillian Anderson has never been anywhere near this lousy. Think Pret-à-Porter, brace yourself, then make it even worse. F

The Market (15 cert, 94 min)

The always-interesting Brit experimenter Ben Hopkins (The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz) began work on this Turkish co-production after 37 Uses for a Dead Sheep, his doc on a migrating tribe called the Pamir Kirghiz. His dolorous parable about a black-market trader (Tayanç Ayaydin) is an astute take on capitalism and its binds, though it might have worked better as a pithy short. B

Crying with Laughter (18 cert, 103 min)

A smashing turn from Stephen McCole as a troubled stand-up comedian elevates Justin Molonikov’s dark Scottish thriller – but the plot takes a wrong turn at the halfway point and never quite recovers. C

The Heavy (18 cert, 94 min)

Watching reluctant hit man Gary Stretch try, for no very obvious reason, to drown a cat affords the biggest laugh in this massively stupid London gangster movie, otherwise only recommended to those who urgently need to see Lee from Blue’s fingers being chiselled off. D

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) (15 cert, 121 min)

John Frankenheimer’s original, delirious, brilliantly acerbic Cold War thriller. A

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Viewing log: 2/4/10

New Releases

A batty shambles, and ugly to boot, but you could snigger throughout at the costumes alone

An intellectual game, addictive to play, but let's not pretend its kooky thesis really adds up

Everything I said here

Disguises a cynical core under cute flash and cartoon brutality -- and disguises it badly

Pretty effortful, full of glum stick-people, and the Big Twist stinks up the joint

Faintly disappointing in its overdone "lyricism", but plainly heartfelt and certainly touching

Other Adventures

Great faces, great specificity, and terrifically supple in the ways it circles and observes

Children of God (LLGFF) D+

Dramatises both Bahamian homophobia and gay self-doubt with sledgehammer crudity