Friday 30 April 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of April 23-25, 2010:

1 (new) Date Night (15) ***
2 (2) Clash of the Titans (12A) **
3 (3) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
4 (1) Dear John (12A) **
5 (4) Kick-Ass (15) *
6 (6) The Ghost (15) **
7 (new) It's a Wonderful Afterlife (12A) **
8 (5) Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang (U) ***
9 (8) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
10 (new) The Joneses (15) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. City of Life and Death
2. The Manchurian Candidate
3. Cleo from 5 to 7 [above]
4. La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet
5. Revanche

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Avatar (12) ***
2 (2) The Men Who Talk to Goats (15) **
3 (1) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
4 (4) Harry Brown (18) **
5 (new) The Box (15) ***
6 (3) 2012 (12) ***
7 (5) The Time Traveler's Wife (12) **
8 (7) An Education (12) ***
9 (new) Nine (12) **
10 (6) Up (U) ***


My top five:
1. Mugabe and the White African
2. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno
3. Tulpan
4. Humpday
5. The Limits of Control

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Lawrence of Arabia (Sunday, five, 1.40pm)
2. The Outlaw Josey Wales (Friday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
3. Unforgiven (Bank Holiday Monday, ITV1, 10.15pm)
4. Antz (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC1, 1.15pm)
5. Hellboy (Sunday, five, 8pm)

Thursday 29 April 2010

From suit to nuts (and bolts): "Iron Man 2"

Iron Man 2 adopts the Spider-Man 3 line of insisting that once a superhero has gone public (and the franchise has passed a set figure at the box office), he deserves - nay, demands - the full celebrity treatment. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark here gets his own troupe of dancing girls, a theme park in Flushing Meadow dedicated to his every whim, imitators in North Korea and Iran, and an entourage that runs the full gamut, from Mickey Rourke at one end of the spectrum to Bill O'Reilly at the other.

Rourke is present as Stark's latest nemesis, a grungy nogoodnik from the Moscow slums known as Ivan Vanko, who'd only require an extra "a" on that Christian name to graduate to an Austin Powers movie; "You look like you have friends in low places," Stark quips of his opponent, when the two have finally shrugged off their armour in a police interrogation room.

Stark, for his part, clearly has admirers in high Hollywood places. During this sequel, he will get to crash racecars in Monaco; he has loads of those flashy, scrolly CSI/iPhone-style touchscreens to do all the film's exposition for him; he has a sexy new legal intern, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), whose duties at one point extend to asking her employer whether his Martini is dirty enough; and continuing the alcoholic theme, he has a new party trick, clay pigeon shooting with bottles of Cristal, which might seem more than faintly decadent in any economic climate. Still, Stark continues to listen to The Clash in his research-and-development lab, lest we start to think he might be anything other than a heroic punk outsider. (Strummer would, you suspect, be appalled; Stark should, by rights, be listening to James Blunt.)

You can tell what a cold, hard, expensive bit of kit Iron Man 2 is from the characters' surnames alone: Stark is here matched against a calculating defence-industry lobbyist called Justin Hammer (a pitch-perfect Sam Rockwell) and - in a comeback of his own - Garry Shandling as a Senator called Stern. (I longed for someone called Lamb, or Sunshine, or a Captain Candyfloss to skip across the screen, but perhaps they're being held back for future instalments.)

For all the film's additional bling, I found myself taking practically the same notes during Iron Man 2 as I did watching 2008's not unenjoyable original: that the electromagnetic coil at Tony Stark's centre is a perfect analogue for the mechanical and heartless nature of the movie (in a typical second-film twist, Stark finds his body is absorbing the coil's resources faster than he can source them); that the experience is not unlike being trapped inside a two-hour trade fair for the military-industrial complex; and that the saving grace, the franchise's one true marvel, is Downey Jr.'s innate sense of showmanship (a little tarnished after Sherlock Holmes, but functional nonetheless). Even the star, though, shows signs of being upstaged by the depth and breadth of gadgetry assembled second time round: take the scene late on where Stark finds himself having to negotiate his way out from behind a windmilling executive toy poised on the desk of the newly promoted Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) - a device that proves more compelling to the eye than anything the actors have been asked to do at that moment.

Again, we're being asked to hand over our hard-earned and cheer the victory of a (this time, physically corrupt) capitalist a-hole, and - in so doing - either sanction or applaud the film's fetishisation of high-grade (not to mention entirely phallic; this is Iron Man, after all) weaponry; the camera demonstrates little interest in anything other than boys and their toys. Paltrow, after this token promotion, has only to bicker with and whine at Stark between mouthing corporate platitudes into telephones. Johansson, who appears under the influence of high-grade tranquilisers throughout, is squeezed into a latex suit that plasticises her curves and essentially turns her into a malleable action figure. The most effective female element comes in the form of a poison pen that, Rockwell insists, is "capable of reducing the population of any standing structure to zero". Its nickname? "The Ex-Wife".

In retrospect, it now seems telling this franchise should have been turned over to Jon Favreau, director and star of those blokey Vince Vaughn comedies; casting himself as Stark's chauffeur, he gets to leer at Johansson changing in the rear-view mirror, the sort of regrettable, retrograde moment you could well imagine Michael Bay engineering for his Transformers inamorata Megan Fox. Iron Man 2 is nothing if not totally pimped out; jetting between Manhattan, Russia and the South of France, it moves in all the right circles, at optimum blockbuster speed. But that's all this franchise is doing right now: circling, like a vulture over the world's popcorn-munchers, or a rocket running out of gas.

Iron Man 2 opens nationwide tomorrow.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Comebacks (ST 02/05/10)

Revanche (15) 121 mins ***
Cléo From 5 to 7 (PG) 90 mins ****
Iron Man 2 (12A) 124 mins ***

An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Picture in early 2009, Revanche has taken its while to reach UK screens, and that unhurried movement is typical of Götz Spielmann’s film as a whole. Consider the opening shot of a lake: utterly placid, until a rock breaks the surface and initiates a ripple effect that foresees the events to come. Such keen attention to the consequences of violent actions marks Revanche as a crime movie very much of the Austrian school: like a genre reworking of Ulrich Seidl’s gruelling 2008 drama Import/Export, it’s clear-eyed about the centrality of sex and money to the current world order, but comes to temper its bleakness with seeds of hope.

It begins as grungy urban character study. Alex (Johannes Krisch), lank-haired, handlebar-moustached enforcer at a Viennese brothel, is planning to clear his debts, and those of his Slavic sex worker sweetheart Tamara (Irina Potapenko), in one go. Disconcertingly, Alex’s manoeuvrings are intercut with those of Robert (Andreas Lust), an upwardly mobile trainee patrolman. The jolt we feel is that of a film vaulting between haves and have-nots, or between different strata of have-nots: where Alex and Tamara’s potency is self-evident, Robert and wife Susanne (Ursula Strauss) have thus far failed to conceive the child they so badly want. Eventually, these lives collide; inevitably, casualties ensue.

After this fateful collision, Revanche relocates to the country and finds its true focus: on men torn up with grief over the same incident, yet set against one another (and themselves) on courses of destructive behaviour. Alex resolves to screw over his nemesis - not just a cop, but a representative of a lifestyle unavailable to him - any way he can. Matters threaten to turn nasty: Spielmann’s compatriot Michael Haneke would surely relish the prominence given to the bandsaw in Alex’s woodshed. Keep in mind the title’s multiple meanings, though; that this archaic term for vengeance can also speak to comebacks, second chances. The film shifts into a softer, novelistic key, one in which renewal and even redemption become possible.

As such, this is another of Oscar’s overseas nominees for which one might well imagine an American remake, although the distinctive atmosphere of Mitteleuropan foreboding Spielmann cultivates would surely be non-transferrable. Some of Spielmann’s ironies - having Robert confronted with his delighted colleagues’ baby photos, say - feel obvious, and the plotting tends towards diffuseness in places; it takes nearly two hours to reach the watershed moment where we learn who threw that rock, and why. Yet if the pacing here is wilful, it’s the better to allow us to observe the great healers present in Revanche - time, nature, hard work, women - patiently going about their own essential business.

Agnès Varda has made as prominent a comeback as any director over the past year, and the BFI Southbank’s summer Vardafest opens with the reissue of Cléo From 5 to 7, the director’s 1961 breakthrough. The tall, striking Corinne Marchand is Cléo, the Parisian singer who pops out for a few hours while awaiting the results of medical tests, only to see reminders of her own mortality everywhere: what we’re watching, essentially, is life - Cléo’s, and everybody else’s - passing before one woman’s eyes, in something like real time.

Cléo now appears a thoroughly modern heroine: a celebrity (a commodity, even) obliged to negotiate the worlds of art and politics in search of the happiness that might relieve the ache at her centre. Both intellectually and geographically curious, the film remains as playful as any other afternoon spent on this director’s shores, albeit with sudden, unexpected swells of emotion: “Sans Toi”, a lament Marchand performs with Michel Legrand at the piano, and the final, bittersweet leavetaking position Varda, once again, at the very heart of the New Wave.

The week’s noisiest return is, of course, Iron Man 2, which adopts Spider-Man 3’s line of insisting that once a superhero has gone public, they deserve the full celebrity treatment, complete with their own theme park, dancing girls and extended entourage, stretching here from Mickey Rourke to Bill O’Reilly. Despite this additional bling, I made practically the same notes during 2008’s original: again, the real marvel is Robert Downey Jr.’s ability to make engaging what most often resembles a two-hour trade fair for the military-industrial complex. Zipping between Russia, Monaco and Manhattan, the sequel moves in the right circles, at optimum blockbuster speed, but that’s all this franchise is doing right now: circling, like a vulture over the world’s popcorn-munchers, or a jet running out of gas.

[A fuller review of Iron Man 2 will appear on this site in due course.]

Friday 23 April 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of April 16-18, 2010:

1 (new) Dear John (12A) **
2 (1) Clash of the Titans (12A) **
3 (2) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
4 (3) Kick-Ass (15) *
5 (4) Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang (U) ***
6 (new) The Ghost (15) **
7 (new) Cemetery Junction (15) ****
8 (5) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
9 (6) The Blind Side (12A) **
10 (7) Remember Me (12A) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. City of Life and Death
2. The Manchurian Candidate
3. La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet [above]
4. Erasing David
5. Life During Wartime

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
2 (new) The Men Who Talk to Goats (15) **
3 (2) 2012 (12) ***
4 (4) Harry Brown (18) **
5 (6) The Time Traveler's Wife (12) **
6 (5) Up (U) ***
7 (8) An Education (12) ***
8 (7) The Hurt Locker (15) ***
9 (3) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (12) ***
10 (9) The Ugly Truth (15) *


My top five:
1. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno
2. Tulpan
3. Humpday
4. Treeless Mountain
5. Avatar

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Asphalt Jungle (Saturday, five, 1.15pm)
2. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Saturday, C4, 9pm)
3. Napoleon Dynamite (Thursday, C4, 10.50pm)
4. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Saturday, five, 6.05pm)
5. Arlington Road (Sunday, BBC1, 10.55pm)

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Battlegrounds (ST 25/04/10)

Life During Wartime (15) 97 mins ***
Agora (12A) 127 mins ***
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (PG) 160 mins ****

If, like me, you emerged seething from 1999’s mosaic-of-dysfunction Happiness, then it’s probably best to approach Life During Wartime, writer-director Todd Solondz’s unofficial sequel, as a blank slate. Central to the new film, after all, is the possibility (or otherwise) of forgiving and forgetting - a notion accentuated by the recasting of the lead roles, often with performers markedly different from those who appeared first time round. Again, we’re plunged into the quietly despairing lives of the Jordan sisters - it’s a case of new actors, same old domestic trauma.

Perpetually tearful Joy (Shirley Henderson) is first observed splitting from her boyfriend, the heavy-breathing sex-pest played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Happiness, and now by the lean African-American actor Michael K. Williams. (Solondz’s 2005 film Palindromes pulled similar switches with race.) As Joy retreats into numbed misery, perkier sibling Trish (Allison Janney) seems to have found love at last, with the roundly normal Henry (Michael Lerner). Meanwhile, local paedophile Bill (Ciaran Hinds) emerges from prison with another boy - his estranged teenage son - on his mind.

It’s possibly a sign of Solondz’s unsparing worldview that seemingly no actor wants to return to work for him - even Lars von Trier is better liked - yet the cast here is at least as strong as that assembled for Happiness, and Henderson and Janney, in particular, are more tangible in their put-upon flakiness than their predecessors. We get striking contributions, too, from Charlotte Rampling as a cougar out-preying Hinds in a bar, Paul “Pee-Wee” Reubens as Henderson’s ghostly confidant, and Ally Sheedy as the black-clad third sister, Helen - now holed up in Hollywood, reportedly with Keanu Reeves.

The question remains as to what Solondz is trying to do with them all. If his goal is to denounce apple-pie America as rotten to its core, well, even U.S. television has been there, done that, and started to construct its family units along new lines (Weeds, Modern Family). There has, granted, been a maturing in the director’s style. The arch provocation has - one Janney-Lerner sex scene aside - been toned down, and relocating the characters to Florida allows a brighter palette to mitigate against the bleak tenor of the screenwriting. It’s the first Solondz film in a while I could bear to be in the same room as, which is some grounds for forgiveness, I guess.

Still, approach with care: with almost every encounter here resembling an excruciating first date, you may be left wondering what sort of creature Solondz is exactly. Moralist? Misanthrope? Both? There’s never enough evidence to resolve the matter; the distance between Solondz and his characters tends to isolate the slivers of sincerity evident in his writing. At one point, Henderson asks Reubens whether he thinks her sister is faking her happiness. “Sometimes pretending can be better than the real thing,” comes the response. In this tricky, deceptively slender work, we catch flickers of a director still desperately trying to show he means it.

In Agora, Rachel Weisz undertakes the considerable challenge of incarnating the fourth century’s very own Carol Vorderman: Hypatia of Alexandria, sexiest mathematician of her age, and beacon of rational enlightenment at a time of deadly theological turbulence. This heroine’s hands are as full as her head: while trying to figure out her exact place in the galaxy, Hypatia has also to referee between the Jewish and Christian factions amassing outside her academy’s gates, not to mention between two rival students (Max Minghella and Oscar Isaac) who have it decidedly hot for teacher.

Director Alejandro Amenàbar strives nobly to revivify the old-school epic here: there are lashings and stonings, and sweeping helicopter shots of hordes trashing bazaars. Against Hypatia’s singularity, though, the boys are pretty dull, and the sums and theorems Amenàbar sets his stall in come to feel altogether less cinematic than gods and monsters; by the time Weisz is toying with Apollonian cones and describing the heliocentric model in a sandpit, we could be watching a Royal Institution Christmas lecture. Still, one emerges tickled by the attempt: when was the last time that actual physics - astrophysics, even - was made so integral to such an expensive production?

The American documentarist Frederick Wiseman has devoted his career to showing the ways our institutions do and don’t work, in a series of films whose blunt titles (High School, Public Housing) are matched only by the untricksy directness of their gaze. His latest, La Danse, achieves an exceptional appreciation of space: that of the building in which the Paris Opera Ballet is housed, and that through which the Ballet's dancers twirl and pirouette. It’s both a portrait of the backstage admin required in running a successful company - the casting, cooking and costume-making - and a study of performers in rehearsal.

What this elegant, graceful film illustrates is how, within this rarefied world, one corridor, one routine, one season flows into the next; to invert a phrase, it may be the closest anybody’s come to making architecture about dancing. The construction is intricate, and - at 160 minutes - risks accusations of pedantry, but La Danse is only ever as intricate, and forever as compelling, as the movements the dancers themselves are making. Gradually, Wiseman comes to replace the mirror on the rehearsal-studio wall; the result is a rare chance to observe, both before and behind the camera, real masters at work.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Nowhere Boy (Moviemail May 2010)

No mere Beatles cash-in, but a highly sensitive, attuned piece of storytelling, artist Sam Taylor-Wood’s pre-Fab drama casts the teenage John Lennon as the centre point in a tangled true-life love triangle. This Lennon (newcomer Aaron Johnson) is drifting towards delinquency under the roof of his adoptive Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) when his birth mum Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) reappears. As if this visibly unstable woman wasn’t enough for one ordinary schoolboy to manage, there’s also a certain influential skiffle group that requires assembling.

Aided by Control screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh’s sharp eye (and ear) for a telling musical backstory, Taylor-Wood here makes a very different form of debut to her BritArt contemporary Steve McQueen’s Hunger, but Nowhere Boy is scarcely less striking in its close attention to detail and mood, and she’s a persuasive director of actors. Johnson skilfully reveals the deep-set emotional scarring beneath Lennon’s inchoate cheek, and with Duff compellingly vulnerable in the dramatic scenes, the ever-wonderful Scott-Thomas seizes upon a rare light-comic role as the disapproving landlady/older sister. Love it do.

Nowhere Boy is released on DVD May 10.

Treeless Mountain (Moviemail May 2010)

The subjects of this beguiling part-fiction, part-documentary hybrid are two young Korean sisters, the bright-as-a-button Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and her sleepier little sister Bin (Song Hee Kim). When their mother lands work in another town, the girls find themselves deposited in the care of an aunt in the city. What we watch there is the process of acclimatisation the sisters face, and their sadness at being abandoned: the title refers to the mound of rubble the pair sit on at night, awaiting mum’s return.

With its emphasis on how these girls learn, the result is something like an Asian equivalent of Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple. Writer-director So Yong Kim’s approach is gentler, certainly - observing the sisters’ inventive attempts to fill their own piggybank - but she’s equally alert to the cruelties lurking in this world: money can’t always, it seems, buy you happiness. These two girls will break your heart: you begin Treeless Mountain wanting to cuddle them, and finish the film scrabbling to adopt them as your own.

Treeless Mountain is released on DVD April 26.

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (Moviemail May 2010)

In 1964, Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of Le Corbeau and Les Diaboliques, was readying his comeback project after an absence of some years from the cinema. A tale of insomnia and marital jealousy, Inferno had been cast - with Serge Reggiani as the put-upon husband and the then-ascendant Romy Schneider [above] as his eminently peachy wife - and, as was Clouzot’s way, meticulously planned, setting him in opposition to the spontaneous chaos of the emergent French New Wave. Copious test footage was shot. And yet Inferno never saw the light of day, instead languishing in a hell of its creator’s own making.

This gripping documentary, co-directed by archivist Serge Blomberg and Ruxandra Medrea Annonier, pieces together the remnants of what would almost certainly have become the most audacious and personal film of Clouzot’s career. A seed of doubt is planted early on, with footage of the director’s wedding to the glamorous young Inès, but the film’s first half concentrates on the techniques Clouzot had planned to employ to get further inside his protagonists’ heads than had previously been thought possible.

The extracts we see of these tests, shot by the great William Lubtchansky and featuring spliced faces and acid-drop colours, are nothing other than staggering. The final product, you sense, might have been the missing link between Hitchcock’s classicism and Persona’s modernism, or a precursor to Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s experiments with the cinematic self in Performance; at the very least, it would have been nothing like Clouzot’s earlier work. Given carte blanche to exercise his obsessions, the director began to retreat into himself, and away from the rest of the world.

We’re left with a psychological thriller about the making of a psychological thriller, seamlessly integrating the surviving footage with latter-day readings of the script and archive interviews with Clouzot himself, the real troubled soul of the piece. The one question Blomberg and Annonier imply but never voice outright - the one you’re led to think might well have weighed heavy on Clouzot’s mind during production - is as follows: where was Inès during all this?

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno is out now on DVD.

Friday 16 April 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of April 9-11, 2010:

1 (1) Clash of the Titans (12A) **
2 (2) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
3 (3) Kick-Ass (15) *
4 (4) Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang (U) ***
5 (5) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
6 (6) The Blind Side (12A) **
7 (7) Remember Me (12A) **
8 (new) Whip It (12A) ***
9 (8) Shutter Island (15) ***
10 (9) The Bounty Hunter (12A) *

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. City of Life and Death
2. The Manchurian Candidate [above]
3. Date Night
4. Bananas!*
5. Repo Men

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Law Abiding Citizen (18)
2 (4) 2012 (12) ***
3 (7) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (12) ***
4 (3) Harry Brown (18) **
5 (6) Up (U) ***
6 (9) The Time Traveler's Wife (12) **
7 (1) The Hurt Locker (15) ***
8 (8) An Education (12) ***
9 (re) The Ugly Truth (15) *
10 (5) New Moon (12) ***


My top five:
1. Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno
2. Tulpan
3. Humpday
4. The Box
5. Examined Life

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Back to the Future (Saturday, ITV1, 3.15pm)
2. Empire Records (Friday, C4, 1.35am)
3. The Cable Guy (Monday, five, 11pm)
4. Stepmom (Monday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
5. Major Dundee (Saturday, five, 5.25pm)

Tuesday 13 April 2010

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of April 2-4, 2010:

1 (new) Clash of the Titans (12A) ** [and I think we all must ask: HOW?]
2 (new) How to Train Your Dragon (PG) ****
3 (new) Kick-Ass (15) *
4 (1) Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang (U) ***
5 (2) Alice in Wonderland (PG) **
6 (3) The Blind Side (12A) **
7 (new) Remember Me (12A) **
8 (4) Shutter Island (15) ***
9 (5) The Bounty Hunter (12A) *
10 (7) The Spy Next Door (PG) **

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Psycho
2. Cemetery Junction
3. Double Take
4. Samson and Delilah
5. How to Train Your Dragon

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) The Hurt Locker (15) ***
2 (8) Paranormal Activity (15) **
3 (5) Harry Brown (18) **
4 (new) 2012 (12) ***
5 (3) New Moon (12) ***
6 (2) Up (U) ***
7 (new) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (12) ***
8 (7) An Education (12) ***
9 (10) The Time Traveler's Wife (12) **
10 (4) Zombieland (15) ***


My top five:
1. Tulpan
2. Humpday
3. Examined Life
4. My Father My Lord
5. OSS 117: Lost in Rio

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. Aguirre, Wrath of God (Saturday, BBC2, 2.20am)
2. Solaris (Saturday, C4, 1.05am)
3. A Mighty Wind (Sunday, ITV1, 11.15pm)
4. The Aviator (Saturday, BBC2, 5.20pm)
5. X2 (Saturday, ITV1, 10.30pm)

Sunday 11 April 2010

Deathtraps (ST 18/04/10)

The Ghost (15) 128 mins **
Cemetery Junction (15) 95 mins ****
City of Life and Death (15) 132 mins *****

The Ghost has a fine haunted house to recommend it, if little else. Entrapment has proved central to Roman Polanski’s life and work - from the Warsaw ghetto through Repulsion and The Tenant to his enforced seclusion in Switzerland - so it follows his latest should unfold within a modernist cinderblock cube on the desolate Massachusetts coast. It’s both retreat and mausoleum - the next evolution of the castles-in-the-sand of Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac and Macbeth - with shutters that descend at the merest hint of a security breach: the idea, presumably, is to offer us a glimpse inside the political machine.

Adapted by Robert Harris from his own bestseller, the film is strongest on ominous suggestion. Drowning was the fate of the last man trying to order the memoirs of Blairish ex-PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan); the ghost writer’s replacement (Ewan McGregor) is an innocent - he knows nothing about politics, which gets him the gig - who simply finds out too much. Lang’s wife Ruth (Olivia Williams, some distance foxier than Cherie) acknowledges our hero must be wondering what he’s let himself in for; soon, McGregor’s soaking in a chi-chi wooden bathtub that doesn’t half resemble a coffin.

In fact, it’s the film that stagnates, falling subject to Harris’s lukewarm-potato plotting, and exactly the pacing you’d expect from a 76-year-old filmmaker trying to stave off deportation; the final hour lacks any momentum whatsoever. Compared to the credible conspiracies of the Bourne franchise, or the modems and piercings of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Ghost suddenly resembles the kind of creakily analogue B-thriller that might have emerged a quarter-century ago, with Michael Caine in the McGregor role.

The recent Green Zone, whose politics were no less fantastical, climaxed with the sending of an e-mail; before The Ghost’s droll punchline - more of an afterthought, really, like Chinatown replayed by a director whose mind and camera aren’t really on the task - the narrative labours towards its conclusion with a slip of paper being passed between the guests at a lavish drinks reception. It takes FOREVER, and since the information it holds bears zero basis on reality as we know it, prompts the immediate question: so what?

In everything from its soundtrack choices to its widescreen vistas, Cemetery Junction feels instantly more cinematic than The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais’s previous directorial outing. It’s doubly impressive, given the camera is trained on Reading circa 1973: a sinkhole, as Gervais and co-collaborator Stephen Merchant have it, into which countless lives seem fated to disappear. Among them, three teens: wild one Bruce (Tom Hughes); socially inept Snork (Jack Doolan); and Freddie (the thoughtful Christian Cooke), obliged to sell life insurance to the town’s living dead.

What distinguishes Cemetery Junction from any American Graffiti -style antecedents is something culturally specific: in probing the faultlines opening up in the 1970s between management and workforce, young dudes and old farts, it comes to observe the terrible state of Britain’s homes and marriages. Gervais casts himself as Freddie’s dad, a worn-down angle grinder who buries his scrap in the backyard; Emily Watson is touching as a neglected wife who wants more for her daughter (the increasingly adorable Felicity Jones) than wifely subservience.

Showaddywaddy are making way for Slade, we sense, and while Gervais and Merchant display understandable sympathy for the new generation - their generation - kicking down the gates, Cemetery Junction’s rich pathos stems from its awareness of those being left behind. We’re offered a masterclass in understated screenwriting (and acting) during a retirement dinner where one aging functionary is rewarded for his service with a derisory fruitbowl and the boss (Ralph Fiennes, rigorously funny) forgetting his wife’s name.

Lest this sound overly sombre, I should point out there are also spacehoppers, and jokes about Elton John’s nuptials; there’s even a Karl Pilkington cameo, for those inclined to look. Most crucially, the sincerity its creators have expressed in interviews and sustained throughout their best small-screen work has at last begun to filter into their wider endeavours. One could well imagine bored teenagers in today’s Reading seeing Cemetery Junction and being stirred to become directors themselves - or at least start recording their own podcasts.

Finally, a too-brief mention for Lu Chuan’s stunning City of Life and Death, a near-Spielbergian evocation of the Rape of Nanking - shot in atmospheric, Schindlerish monochrome, with Private Ryan-like combat scenes - that goes beyond what Spielberg would show to deliver a wholly unsentimental account of the sorriest chapter in Sino-Japanese relations. It’s not a history lesson so much as a dolorous, often chilling testimony: a steady parade of horrors elevated to the status of unforgettable cinema by a profound directorial sobriety.

Dinners and dynasties (ST 11/04/10)

(You've gotta love that poster, at least.)

I Am Love (15) 120 mins ***
Whip It (12A) 111 mins ***
The Infidel (15) 105 mins **
Clash of the Titans (12A) 97 mins **

All Italian dramas must eventually arrive at a family gathering. Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, which is upfront about most things for most of its duration, places its confab at the very start, the better to observe the fallout. The Recchi fashion house - headed by ailing patriarch Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti) - has convened to discuss an imminent transfer of power. Favoured inheritor is Edoardo’s son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), a dour Fabio Capello lookalike whose bored Slavic spouse (Tilda Swinton) is pointedly named Emma à la Bovary, and whose children are themselves being urged towards marriages designed to consolidate the dynasty’s standing.

For some while, it seems we’ve been invited merely to observe the elaborate dining rituals of the Milanese well-to-do, though unexpected revelations soon put a halt to the servants’ crockery polishing and careful spooning out of aubergine. The business is split between Tancredi and his estranged son (“it will take two men to replace me”, Edoardo insists); Emma, meanwhile, unearths evidence of her daughter’s Sapphic fling. A family whose livelihood is dependent upon tradition realises how susceptible it is to change: after a moment of rhapsody over a prawn risotto, Emma starts stalking a hunky young chef around San Remo.

It is, as you might imagine, a film of passionate extremes, painted in bold, precise strokes. The skilled Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography contrasts cool, dark metropolitan interiors with the warmth and light of the family’s countryside retreats, while opera legend John Adams’ score swoops and soars. If there’s an obvious flaw, it’s that the Recchis, like their director, possess everything save a sense of humour; at no point does I Am Love acknowledge its many absurdities. The result is two parts high style to one part preposterousness: a potent cocktail, admittedly, but altogether peculiar to the taste.

Swinton, for her part, is typically striking, switching fluently between Russian and Italian. Yet Emma’s erotic obsession is presented in the manner of a Chatterley-inspired fragrance ad - cue shots of insects pollinating flowers - and even those willing to accept these at face value might not buy the film’s London bankers, observed making earnest speeches about “doing good deeds in the world”. Suffice to say, when Guadagnino declares I Am Love, he does so with tongue far from cheek and his heart on his well-tailored sleeve: the absence of irony is absolute, admirable, and - for this viewer at least - almost, almost beguiling.

The actress Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, unfolds within the world of roller derby, that dry-track form of speed skating in which pierced, tattooed Amazonian warriors with names like Eva Destruction shove each other into barriers for points: it’s Rollerball, essentially, only without the balls. Small-town girl Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is being schooled as a debutante; her nights, however, are spent in nearby Austin - countercultural heart of Texas - where she dons the identity Babe Ruthless for bottom-placed league outfit The Hurl Scouts. We’re building towards a coming-out scene of a sort: that moment where Bliss has to tell her uptight ma she’d rather move in circles with her sisters at the rink.

It’s disarmingly sweet and funny - would we expect anything less from un film de Drew? - if sometimes lacking in fluency: Barrymore can barely bring herself to shout cut on certain scenes, such is her generosity of spirit. Still, there remains much to like: Page even has us cheering Bliss’s incongruously vanilla fling with a drippy alt-rocker. I liked Daniel Stern’s affectionate reading of the heroine’s quietly proud father, but given the supporting cast also strives to accommodate Juliette Lewis’s world-beating sneer and Arrested Development alumna Alia Shawkat’s freckled insouciance, seasoned riot-grrrls may have cause to ask: who invited boys to this party?

Directed by Josh Appignanesi from a David Baddiel screenplay, The Infidel offers a role far more deserving of Omid Djalili than those bloody price-comparison ads, yet never develops beyond the level of functional TV pilot. Just before his son’s marriage to the daughter of a hardline cleric, blokeish Muslim cabbie Mahmud (Djalili) discovers - oy and, indeed, vey - he was born Solly Shimsillewitz, to a Jewish father. Submitting to Semitic schooling, our hero is beset with curiosity: soon, he’s juggling pro-Palestinian marches with his first bar mitzvah.

Mahmud’s vision of himself in full concentration camp garb is genuinely startling, yet elsewhere one senses Baddiel’s barbed view of faith has been rounded off for easier consumption, and nobody knows how to end it: we conclude with Djalili in drag, publicly mouthed platitudes, and one of those cast dancing sequences that have become the hallmark of Britcoms trying too hard for laughs. A fond snapshot of multicultural Britain, yes, but you’d have loved to have seen The Infidel before it passed through the cookie-cutter.

Deadlines prevented my mentioning Clash of the Titans last weekend, but connoisseurs of the deliriously silly should hasten to the multiplex forthwith. 3D here proves the flimsiest spectator bait; the real reasons to see it are Lindy Hemming’s costume designs, which are exactly those of a vengeful god. Avatar’s Sam Worthington squirms away under his short skirt as Perseus; Ralph Fiennes’ Hades inherits John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth stylings; while Liam Neeson’s Zeus rocks mirrorball armour that even Slade’s Dave Hill might have deemed too showy. Quite something: a film that resembles Hollywood’s biggest flop of 1960 and 2010 simultaneously.

Hitch double bill (ST 04/04/10)

Double Take (nc) 80 mins ****
Samson & Delilah (15) 100 mins ****
Kick-Ass (15) 117 mins *
How to Train Your Dragon (PG) 98 mins ****

There’s only one Alfred Hitchcock, right? Not according to Double Take, a supremely intriguing historical supposition from Belgian collagist Johan Grimonprez that serves as a testament to the enduring fascination of the Master’s work. The premise, at least, is comparatively straightforward. In 1962, while filming The Birds, Hitchcock encounters a doppelgänger who claims to have arrived from 1980 - the eve of another Presidential assassination attempt - with a grim vision of the future: and no, he doesn’t just mean the remake of The Lady Vanishes.

Grimonprez illustrates this tale with clips drawn from Hitchcock’s promotional and television appearances, and newly filmed inserts featuring the voice of Dead Ringers’ Mark Perry and the portly figure of recently deceased Hitch ringer Ron Burrage, a former busboy at Claridge’s who once served the director tea and - countless vanilla slices later - assumed the mantle of professional Hitchcock lookalike. This is, then, both a story in itself, and a film about the stories we have been, and are being, told - one that reaches out beyond cinema history to history itself.

Interwoven throughout Double Take is an account of the Cold War, from the forced levity of the Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen debates to the televised announcement of JFK’s death. The film establishes a world on tenterhooks, expecting the worst; Hitchcock’s direct contribution is his famous definition of the difference between surprise and suspense, depending on the audience’s awareness of the bomb sitting under a restaurant table. There’s something of our own Adam Curtis in this pointed deployment of archive footage: in Grimonprez’s skilled hands, The Birds becomes an augury of things to come.

The 1980 Hitchcock is convinced that commercial-riddled television, the enemy of sustained suspense, has rendered his cinematic project worthless; that he’s become yesterday’s man. He needn’t have worried, of course: those master manipulators preying on our most irrational fears continue to gather across the media like ravens upon a climbing frame. If the title of Grimonprez’s film speaks to a reaction of disbelief, so the remainder intuits how much of modern life is reliant on our credulity as consumers. Double Take’s thesis is that a bomb now sits under all our tables - for more, stay tuned through the end credits.

The heroes of Samson & Delilah don’t appear especially Biblical: two Aboriginal teenagers bored out of their minds in a quiet outback community. With their parents either dead, disinterested, or behind bars, Delilah (Marissa Gibson) tends to her ageing grandmother, while the larkier Samson (Rowan McNamara) spends his days huffing petrol fumes. Still, like all young lovers, they have music and hope in their hearts. The opportunity - and the need - to leave soon presents itself; yet the city, alas, is not the paradise they were looking for.

Warwick Thornton’s film operates wordlessly and stealthily. Not one sentence passes between the leads, only loaded looks and glances. An art dealer’s abrupt “not interested” speaks for the marginalisation of an entire indigenous people. And yet Thornton has much to say about the Aboriginal community’s own shortcomings. These youngsters lack the means - the money, language and self-belief - to mediate between themselves and the wider world: Samson, adrift on a solvent haze, simply doesn’t notice when his companion is bundled away by a pair of yahoos.

Late on, we witness petrol being put to its proper use, being pumped into a car transporting the teenagers. Finally, we hope, these characters are getting somewhere; we may even take consolation from the symmetry that just as Samson spirited Delilah away from their dead-end existence, she will bring him back - and thus, we infer, back to life. An odyssey in the truest sense, it’s a bruising experience, but, pushed onwards by Gibson and McNamara’s exceptionally expressive performances, vivid and compelling in its fusion of mythic and contemporary elements.

Let us pass briskly over Kick-Ass, a film so aggressively targeted at teenage boys as to leave adult viewers with the sensation they’ve just been viciously mugged for a disposable income they don’t have. Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust follow-up gives us a DIY superhero (Nowhere Boy’s Aaron Johnson), a trash-talking 11-year-old girl, and mucho cold, unfelt violence; clearly, at the Methuselean age of 32, I fall outside the designated demographic, but then again I am old enough to remember plenty of films based on comic books that didn’t so obviously resemble instructional videos for sociopaths.

Early on in the lovingly rendered animation How to Train Your Dragon - a boy-and-his-pet movie reviving the tradition of Old Yeller or E.T. - our Viking hero Hiccup reaches out his hand, and the feline black dragon he’s adopted edges guardedly towards it - a framing later reproduced as Hiccup and his father stumble towards their own rapprochement. Coincidence, perhaps - yet in the few pixels of stereoscopic space between these characters, there resides some of the strongest emotional evidence yet presented in favour of the new 3D format.

Clash of the Titans (The Scotsman 03/04/10)

Clash of the Titans (12A) **
Directed by: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton

Fond memories of 1981’s original Clash - a tatty sword-and-sandals romp that set a pre-L.A. Law Harry Hamlin against Ray Harryhausen’s stopmotion creations - should be set aside going into this exceptionally silly remake, which boasts some of the least dynamic 3D yet bolted on to a film in post-production. As humble fisherman Perseus, humbly negotiating whatever the gods throw at him, Avatar beefcake Worthington appears thoroughly ill-at-ease in his miniskirt, but that’s nothing: good god Zeus (Neeson) sports a Bacofoil outfit remaindered from the Glitter Band, while bad god Hades (Fiennes) has been styled somewhere between John Travolta in Battlefield Earth and snooker’s own Willie Thorne.

Best not to question the intelligence of a film that casts Gemma Arterton - Gemma Arterton! - as the Oracle, and which squanders considerable expense and programming man-hours on making itself resemble Hollywood’s biggest flop of 1964. Leterrier’s battle sequences, all apparently shot around the same quarry, would play just as averagely without the stereoscopic specs, while a variably convincing supporting cast (including, erm, Skins’ Nicholas Hoult) don breastplates and venture their best Gerard Butler impersonations. It may just raise a smile, but it’s cheesier than the fondue at a Roman orgy.

Blind undertaking (ST 28/03/10)

The Blind Side (12A) 128 mins **
Nanny McPhee & the Big Bang (U) 110 mins ***
Lion’s Den (15) 113 mins ****

And to think there were those who grumbled Crazy Heart was an unexceptional film to win Jeff Bridges an acting Oscar. This may well have been Sandra Bullock’s year - marital troubles aside - but the galling thing about her triumph in the arrant hicksploitation of The Blind Side is that it’s not meant to be her character’s moment. John Lee Hancock’s true-life drama notionally concerns Michael “Big Mike” Oher (Quinton Aaron), a hulking black teen from the Memphis projects. Left homeless after his father’s death, Oher was adopted by brash, bottle-blonde soccer mom Leigh Anne Tuohy - enter Bullock - who taught him shopping and self-esteem, and transformed him into one of gridiron’s most valuable defensive players.

Judging by its huge commercial success in the States, the film clearly pushes a lot of the right Obama-era buttons. It’s racial, obviously, but religious, too: Oher is enrolled at a good Christian school where the football team goes under the divinely inspired nickname “the Crusaders”. Yet from its blithely sunny evocation of the projects to its last-reel gloss on The Charge of the Light Brigade as a sports coaching manual, The Blind Side is horribly, persistently simplistic. At its most patronising, we could be watching Precious translated from the original black, which perhaps explains why Hancock’s movie has taken five times as much at the box office.

Where Precious positioned its multiply challenged heroine at the centre of its universe, Hancock films Oher as the Tuohys’ latest pet, tagging mutely along behind more immediately readable white folks: not just Leigh Anne, but her down-home husband (country star Tim McGraw, canny casting for the flyover crowd), a kid so brattily precocious you ache for Big Mike to fall on him, and Kathy Bates as a tutor with - oh my lawd - Democratic tendencies. The lowpoint arrives when Mr. Tuohy wonders where Leigh Anne sourced a baby photo for Michael’s graduation festivities. “I scanned it off an Internet site for toddlerwear,” she responds, to audience guffaws; who knew all African-Americans looked alike?

In The Blind Side’s prologue, we’re informed that Oher’s duty as an offensive tackle is to protect his quarterback, the team’s star player and chief wage-earner. Observing what unfolds, it’s hard not to feel the thoughtful, likable newcomer Aaron has been recruited to do much the same thing for Bullock here: provide the semblance of weight that might allow his dainty Caucasian co-star to elude her competition and run all the way to the awards-season endzone. Taken in isolation, Bullock’s performance is ballsy enough; yet it speaks volumes for the parlous state of this actress’s career that a film this retrogressive could be considered in any way a comeback.

2005’s Nanny McPhee was a jolly holiday romp that saw the Hampstead set doing Mary Poppins, giving Emma Thompson an unlikely signature role as the unkempt housekeeper with magical tidying properties. Sequel The Big Bang - which finds the supernatural supernanny refereeing tweenies on soldier’s wife Maggie Gyllenhaal’s farm - applies gooey substances (jam, treacle, pigswill) to the screen with a liberal hand; it’s seemingly hellbent on reproducing the textures of the cinema floor after a matinee screening. Once more, supporting players sign up at their own risk: Maggie Smith mistakes a cowpat for a cushion, while chauffeur Daniel Mays tumbles backwards into a duckpond.

Beneath the gunge, there’s a very English fantasy about the need for order in uncertain times: the WW2 setting cues a Chelsea Pensioners cameo, and some light quivering from the upper lip of Ralph Fiennes as a War Office bigwig. We could quibble about an excess of CG gimmickry - burping jackdaws and flying pigs - but any film that casts Bill Bailey as an amenable farmer must be doing something right, the design work is smashing, while the bomb-disposal finale suggests nothing less than a Lionel Jeffries remake of The Hurt Locker.

If there’s one release this weekend that truly merits Mother and Baby screenings, however, it’s Lion’s Den, the latest from young Argentinian master Pablo Trapero, which sees pregnant heroine Julia (Martina Gusman) sequestered to a prison wing reserved for mothers and mothers-to-be following her abusive boyfriend’s death. Breastfeeding cinemagoers will surely conclude that the considerable task of getting a nipper to sleep in a childproofed suburban semi is as nothing compared to accomplishing same under the institutional lighting of a Buenos Aires jail cell.

Cooler-headed than the recent A Prophet, Lion’s Den operates comfortably within the babes-behind-bars genre - there are, of course, shower-block catfights - but centralising these madonnas allows the film to chart genuinely novel territory: even the resident bad girl has to halt her threats to tend to her wailing newborn. As Julia comes to embrace the possibility of a new beginning, Trapero leaves us with indelible and cheering images: cellblock corridors scattered with Lego bricks and tricycles, snipers clad as Santa Claus, tiny feet converting prison doors into makeshift climbing frames.

Boys behind bars (ST 21/03/10)

I Love You, Phillip Morris (15) 97 mins ***
My Last Five Girlfriends (12A) 87 mins **
The Bounty Hunter (12A) 110 mins *

Can a gay conman ever go straight? I Love You, Phillip Morris, an apparently true story from Bad Santa screenwriters-turned-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, strives to make a folk hero out of one Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), an individual introduced playing the all-American roles of cop, husband and God-fearing churchgoer. Yet as a doozy of a reveal establishes, Russell’s was a double life, involving fake insurance claims and trysts with male lovers. It was while behind bars that Russell fell for the eponymous Morris (Ewan McGregor), although his enthusiastic hymning of inter-convict relations hinted he wasn’t ready to settle down just yet.

Phillip Morris played to awkward silences when I saw it; there are reasons why it arrives unadorned by studio logos, and with stars attached who, at this stage, have no particular reputation to ruin. Still, just as Bad Santa was sincere about nothing save its characters, Ficarra and Requa - coaxing unusually engaged work from their leads - invest this central relationship with heart and good cheer. Steven and Phillip’s first kiss forms the climax to a lyrical montage of stolen cellblock intimacies - and coincides with an especially vocal inmate being tasered offscreen.

The film’s best gag - made explicit after its hero escapes from jail and commences a new career in government healthcare - is that the time Russell has spent in the closet leaves him uniquely equipped to get ahead in business, to pass as one of the boys. “Golf?,” Phillip asks his lover as he prepares to tee off with the company bigwigs, “Why don’t you just eat pussy?” The tensions between the two are all there in this exchange: Russell forever putting himself at risk of exposure, leaving his steadfast partner to grow increasingly resentful in his wake.

Phillip Morris remains a (bi-)curious one: never quite the laugh riot the marketeers have been obliged to sell it as - the flexibility demanded from Carrey is here moral rather than physical - nor the assault on traditional values its scribes’ past work suggested. Rather, it’s a tender, quietly subversive character piece that, in its final round of you-couldn’t-or-wouldn’t-make-it-up revelations, approaches genuinely audacious territory. I’m not so sure the film’s sexual politics aren’t more confused than Ficarra and Requa let on, but it has some novelty as a true gay romance: the wistful offspring of Fargo and Philadelphia, perhaps.

Slim pickings elsewhere this week, although we might usefully take the opportunity to survey the sorry state of heterosexual movie love. Last year’s likable (500) Days of Summer crossed over into highbrow fantasy when its twentysomething hero bought his beloved an unspecified Alain de Botton book. Might it have been de Botton’s Essays in Love, the basis for new British feature My Last Five Girlfriends? The films share more than just their reading habits: like its predecessor, Julian Kemp’s film displays a weird tendency to conceal any true feelings behind a battery of defensive tics and gimmicks.

After an apparent suicide attempt, lovesick hero Duncan (Brendan Patricks) awakens in a limbo known as “Duncanworld” (“The world’s first theme park devoted to a complete nobody!”), where - between wearyingly inventive cutaways and a welcome Johnny Ball cameo - he’s left to ponder a quintet of former conquests, High Fidelity-style. As in (500) Days, the number in the title signals an attempt to impose order on chaotic heartbeats, yet Kemp proves so beholden to love’s torments that he omits any laughter or pleasure. It’s all very well trying to outsmart conventional boy-meets-girl business, but the New Romcom appears to value its brain over any other organs.

My Last Five Girlfriends has more specific flaws besides. Girlfriends two through four barely register as written, and Patricks’ charms stretch perilously thin. (Pick an unknown lead to play a complete nobody, and you run the risk of perfect casting.) Produced on a lowish budget, the film looks respectable - magicking up Paris and palm trees on what were presumably London locations - and never lacks for ideas. But it could badly do with taking lessons from the talking stuffed elephant who briefly interrupts Duncan’s stream of semi-consciousness: “Don’t think. Get on with it.”

Better that, however, than The Bounty Hunter, a dismayingly witless demonstration of Old Romance principles that finds Gerard Butler’s title character gleefully stuffing his ex Jennifer Aniston in his car boot after she fails to make a court appearance. Between bland montages and squandered supporting players, Butler gets to maintain the run of releases that have established him as something else entirely: Hollywood’s first romantic lead to have made aggressive-jerk chauvinism central to his screen persona. As I write, some Burbank exec is doubtless insisting Butler is “such a throwback to the leading men of old”. Yeah, if you mean Captain Caveman.

Hazy Scorsese (ST 14/03/10)

Shutter Island (15) 138 mins ***
Green Zone (15) 115 mins ***

It looked as though Shutter Island, like certain residents of the Boston mental asylum from which it draws its title, might never see daylight. Martin Scorsese’s period potboiler - an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel about two U.S. marshals (here, Leonardo diCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) investigating the disappearance of a female childkiller - has had its release postponed more than once. If it now appears to have been thrown away by its distributors in the week of the Bourne team’s more immediately pyrotechnic Green Zone, one can scarcely blame them: the film itself finds Scorsese on decidedly throwaway form.

For Lehane, author of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, the stock thriller plot was a vehicle through which to explore prevailing social strictures, and the extremes to which grief can drive a man; for Scorsese, the moviebrat weaned on post-War American cinema, it’s not much more than a compendium of pulpy tropes. DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels - a recently widowed ex-G.I., one of the first to arrive at the gates of Dachau - has demons of his own to exorcise. The shifty asylum director (Ben Kingsley) confers with his sinister European associate (Max von Sydow). Outside, a storm blows in. Soon everyone’s on lockdown.

Essentially, then, it’s B-movie stuff, driven by the same down-winding sensibility that led Scorsese to follow GoodFellas with Cape Fear; a way - after the Oscar-winning The Departed - for the director to trade on cherished memories of RKO thrillers and Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor. Still, at a bloated 138 minutes, Shutter Island feels less grand than attenuated guignol, its troubled production history visible in the frequent crises of storytelling and filmmaking: hokily amateur back-projections, long scenes of exposition, the facile deployment of concentration-camp trauma as plot device.

Yet - as ever with sub-par Scorsese - it’s eminently watchable, and sometimes better than that. Teddy’s dream sequences are blue-chip expressionism, fitted out with the most suggestive editing, score and camerawork major studio dollars can buy. And if you can get past the daftness, there’s some enjoyment to be derived from the film’s passing parade of lived-in character actors (Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson) trotting out their twitchy and/or outright crazy routines. Belatedly, Shutter Island comes to merit its release; its tongue, though, remains a prisoner to its own cheek.

What makes Paul Greengrass a very modern director is his fascination with networks of information, how disparate people and agencies are brought together. Greengrass’s characters are individuals trying to make sense of chaotic circumstances, whether protestors coming under fire (Bloody Sunday), or an amnesiac CIA footsoldier attempting to piece his memories into a coherent whole (the Bourne films). It’s no fluke that his latest, Green Zone, should finish up panning over an e-mail address book; one of the key themes in this most plugged-in and switched-on filmmaker’s work is how we communicate.

Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have here adapted Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a wry non-fiction account of the bungled Iraq occupation. On page after page, Chandrasekaran laid out the bureaucratic snarl-ups, the warnings that went unheeded, the intelligence that proved unreliable. For Greengrass, the story lies in how these truths emerged: Matt Damon’s composite hero-soldier Roy Miller goes off-radar to retrieve a notebook containing crucial data on Saddam loyalists, then has to duck rival intelligence factions to put its contents in the right hands.

A fast-moving flowchart, the film allots scant time to the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in its midst. The Iraqi people are represented by Miller’s translator Freddy (Khalil Abdalla), a one-legged patriot who at least gets to bellow “it is not for you to decide what happens here” at his employers. Yet what becomes increasingly clear is that Helgeland and Greengrass, the born problem-solver who ironed the ambiguities of the United 93 story into a compelling official line, have decided: Miller’s actions fix glitches in the network in a way the occupying forces, regrettably, never managed.

For all the real-world chaos Green Zone hints at, its narrative thrust brings it unexpectedly close to triumphalist fantasy, and while one can admire Greengrass’s typically taut, controlled direction, you might think the situation demanded a messier work, one that didn’t eventually require Damon to stand up and insist “The reasons we go to war always matter!” The film’s intelligence is sound, yet Green Zone is finally too tight, too self-contained an entertainment to do justice to its sources, whether the anecdotal, Arabian Nightmares sprawl of Chandrasekaran’s book, or the disrepair of Iraq as we left it.

Twin Peaks: Definitive Gold Box Edition (Moviemail April 2010)

Cause for cherry pie and another cup of coffee: the emergence of the complete Twin Peaks, one of the most singular and daring projects in American network television, in one handy box set. The second season of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s surreal murder-mystery has long been unavailable on UK DVD due to rights issues almost as tangled as the show’s plotting - but hats off to Universal Playback for persevering: here, at last, is a golden opportunity to explore - or revisit - every nook and cranny of the small screen’s strangest-ever town.

For the uninitiated, these are the investigations of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), summoned to the leafy Northwestern logging hotspot after the body of prom queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) washes up, “wrapped in plastic”, on a nearby shore. Almost everyone - from bigshot hotelier Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) to leather-clad wild one Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) - is acting funny enough to count among the suspects, and Lynch’s hand keeps manifesting itself unexpectedly: in Cooper’s never-more-vivid dreams, the fixation with owls and sweetmeats, and a dragged-up David Duchovny.

The production-troubled Season Two - introducing rogue agent Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh, terrifying) - has long been underrated; seen again, it offers several of the show’s most lyrical stretches, involving Cooper’s courtship of waitress Annie Blackburne (Heather Graham). Yet it’s the creative risks taken by Lynch and Frost throughout that continue to amaze, their gorgeous leads, astounding tonal shifts and unprecedented atmospherics reclaiming and rejuvenating so many primetime drama clichés. No Twin Peaks, in other words, no Sopranos, no Lost, no Glee.

The extras are, as Coop might say, damn fine, preserving Log Lady Catherine Coulson’s cryptic episode introductions alongside deleted scenes, production documentaries, retrospectives, and the video for one-hit wonder Julee Cruise’s theme song “Falling”: evidence of how the show - and Angelo Badalamenti’s lulling orchestrations - permeated the global consciousness circa 1990. Most cherishable is the inclusion of Lynch’s self-enclosed feature-length pilot, formerly available only on VHS: for newcomers and obsessives alike, it’s a whole other way into (and out of) the woods.

Stuck in a hole (ST 07/03/10)

Alice in Wonderland (PG) 103 mins **
Father of My Children (12A) 110 mins *****

Curiouser and curiouser. For once, the carefully constructed hype surrounding a major studio release has been all but drowned out by backroom squabbling. Disney wanted Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to make like the Cheshire Cat and vanish from cinemas after mere weeks, the better to seek its true fortune on DVD; multiplex bosses were, understandably, somewhat miffed at this arrangement. As it turns out, the film itself - a gaudy, boring self-indulgence - proves regrettably easy to boycott. I’d wait for the DVD, if I were you; apparently it’ll be along soon enough.

Burton’s Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a willowy, pallid, perfume-ad blonde fleeing a dullard’s proposal when she tumbles into Wonderland, where the inhabitants are half-CGI and seven-eights British: the Blue Caterpillar boasts Alan Rickman’s languid tones, Helena Bonham Carter is an oddly-proportioned Red Queen, while Matt Lucas essays both Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The Mad Hatter, inevitably, is Jack Sparrow, or Johnny Depp as was, once again concealing his talent behind silly frills and unintelligible gestures: green contact lenses deaden the star’s eyes, while the portions of Jabberwocky he recites form his most coherent contribution.

In 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl’s narrative grounded Burton’s wilder flights of fancy, but here the imagery runs rampant, starts cancelling itself out: each frame fills up with so much pixellated grotesquery that very little of it comes to seem unique. “I’m frightened,” the Mad Hatter admits, trashing his workshop. “It’s terribly crowded in here, and I don’t like it.” One begins to see how the new digital technologies might enable a particularly oppressive form of directorial imagination. For all the additional space 3D gives Burton to play with, the film feels stiff and static when set against the immersive environments of Avatar; it lacks for fresh, non-virtual air.

Burton has spent 25 years at the frontline of the bizarre now, and it may be that a certain staidness has started to creep into his vision. His latest becomes less curious by the minute: when Alice dons warrior-princess armour to face the Jabberwocky, we could be watching one of those dreary Narnia adaptations, while the bathetic coda finds our heroine back in the real world, overseeing her father’s merchant trading activities. She looks independent enough, it’s true, but wouldn’t we prefer our Alices to emerge from the rabbit hole with something more magical to show for themselves than an MBA and an Avril Lavigne single to play over the end credits?

This weekend’s real wonder is Father of My Children, the second feature from erstwhile Cahiers du Cinéma critic Mia Hansen-Løve. Inspired by the life and death of leading European producer Humbert Balsan - the director’s earliest sponsor - this exceptional drama considers the question of what exactly a man can create and nurture, in terms of both cinema and the relationships he forms. It’s a film, accordingly, of two halves. The first - what we might call “The Father” - offers a portrait of Grégoire Canvel (the enormously charismatic Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), mobile phone-juggling head honcho of Paris-based Moon Films.

Grégoire’s life is founded on risk. Pulled over for speeding, he’s obliged to start taking the bus to work, and ends up backing a young fellow traveller’s screenplay. Trouble is, risk requires capital, and debts are mounting like the cigarette butts in Grégoire’s ashtray. Two aspects keep us rooting for this flashest of Harries: the great warmth he displays around his family; and his evident faith in a higher power than the marketplace. Yet his lifestyle is clearly extracting a heavy toll. Grégoire half-jokes to one confidant: “I can always throw myself out of the window.” As it is, his exit is no less sudden and shocking.

The second half - the “Of My Children” part - shifts the focus onto those who loved Grégoire as they try to make sense of what just happened. The producer’s Italian wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) picks up her husband’s scattered receipts; their teenage daughter Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing), a French-Italian co-production, starts seeing the boy on the bus. Hansen-Løve has a rare sense for how cinema brings people together: she makes fascinating the ostensibly tedious business of international co-financing agreements by demonstrating the impact Grégoire’s negotiations have on his own household.

The director’s amatory surname is apt, for her film is steeped in cinephilia; it understands the internal workings and the romantic appeal of the movie business better than almost anything I’ve seen. Yet we come to care as much about Grégoire’s nearest and dearest as we do his pet projects: they were all, ultimately, expressions of his love. Hansen-Løve’s acclaimed 2007 debut Tout est Pardonné never arrived on these shores, but this follow-up succeeds on every level: as a timely reminder money need not be everything, a superbly wise and tender study of a family emerging from crisis, and an act of tribute from a major new talent to an individual whose assets may have frozen, but whose heart never did.

Credibility crunch (ST 28/02/10)

Capitalism: a Love Story (12A) 126 mins ***
Extraordinary Measures (PG) 105 mins **
The Crazies (15) 101 mins ***

There’s a crucial moment early in 1989’s Roger & Me, Michael Moore’s grimly funny essay on the economic devastation General Motors wrought on his hometown of Flint, Michigan. It’s here we learn the filmmaker was fired from a Chicago newspaper for arguing with management; evidently, the fourth estate could contain neither Moore’s concerns nor his ego. Henceforth, Moore’s work would abandon objectivity to pursue its own agenda; even its narration would sound as though recorded too close to the microphone. The baseball-capped crusader wanted our ear, and he was willing to try anything to get it.

In his latest, Capitalism: a Love Story, Moore revisits Flint, and where once industry flourished, there is now not a single green shoot in sight. Evidence suggests it’s the same story all across America. Moore’s explanation - feel free to quibble - goes something like this. The post-War growth, achieved while America’s shellshocked rivals rebuilt, accelerated thanks to huckster-statesmen like Reagan, who gleefully dismantled the system of checks and balances to turn a quicker buck. The shock isn’t that the economy went into meltdown; it’s that the infrastructure didn’t collapse sooner.

Moore-sceptics, brace yourselves. The director gets this historical overview not from an economist, but the cuddly actor Wallace Shawn; he declares capitalism “evil”, oblivious to the fact those queuing for his movie at the multiplex are surely an example of how the free market can, occasionally, operate for enlightenment. Like his conservative opponents, Moore is prone to easy nostalgia, here granting Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, never enacted into law, a full reading. Still, while it’s tempting to dismiss Moore as a crank, he remains an entertaining crank; if he’s merely a propagandist, he’s becoming increasingly skilled with it.

He recuts Presidential addresses, redubs Robert Powell’s Jesus, illustrates ideas of social mobility with YouTube footage of a dog trying to grab scraps from a table. He relishes the irony of a struggling signmaker whose business was saved by a sudden rush of orders for foreclosure placards. Capitalism is anchored by Moore’s ability to hone in on the most emotive material available to him: planes brought down by debt-burdened pilots, corporations taking out so-called “Dead Peasants” life insurance to profit from their employees’ deaths.

The director has appeared increasingly keen to reclaim some middle ground: even his most divisive work, 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, deployed bereaved Republican Lila Lipscomb to bolster its case against the then-incumbent Dubya. One atypically pious segment in Capitalism seems to be reaching out to Bible Belt viewers, by demonstrating how the laws of the market are directly opposed to the word of God. Moore’s prepared to criticise Democrats for backing the rushed-through Republican bailout package, denouncing Obama and Goldman Sachs in the same breath.

What Capitalism lacks, amid this new-found moderation, is any real coup de cinéma. The film is weary around the edges. “I can’t keep doing this any more,” Moore opines in his summation, sounding rather like a Wat Tyler who’s realised the mob behind him is too busy Twittering to confront the issues he’s been raising these past two decades. Perhaps inadvertently, the film poses a question that speaks less of fatcat greed than it does our own failings as consumers. It’s not - as Moore barks at one senator - “where has our money gone?” It is, instead, this: why haven’t we done more to reclaim it?

We follow the money into Extraordinary Measures, an old-fashioned disease-of-the-week procedural based on Geeta Anand’s The Cure; less than extraordinary viewing, all told, but I gave it points for trying. This is the true story of how two men eating tacos in a bar came to save hundreds of children’s lives. One is John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), a marketing exec whose offspring were born with Pompe disease, a terminal form of muscular dystrophy; the other is Dr. Robert Stonehill (Harrison Ford), an under-appreciated research scientist at the University of Nebraska.

The opening CBS Films logo proves the giveaway: this is a TV movie, shot by Starter for Ten’s Tom Vaughan in a determined soft focus, but it’s sincere and decently performed, weighing Fraser’s doughiness against Ford’s flinty grouch. That Stonehill is obliged to become a team player is an indication of the film’s dramatic limitations, and Vaughan struggles to make enzymes compelling. Yet the script is shrewd on the intersection of science and private finance: if its miracle cure comes to seem like a given, the hard slog of finding the funding for these breakthroughs is made honourably clear.

One could harrumph on hearing Breck Eisner, son of Hollywood magnate Michael, has remade George Romero’s countercultural shocker The Crazies. Gone are Romero’s sociopolitical gracenotes: as sheriff Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell’s GP outrun the murderous madness trickling through their small farming community, Eisner’s potshots at military ineptitude are at best perfunctory, and all too clearly aimed at winning the hearts and minds of an anti-authoritarian teenage demographic. Yet the relentless forward momentum occasions some clever-grisly moments. I liked the mortician-gone-wild set-piece requiring Olyphant to desuture a dying priest’s mouth for crucial narrative information. He hears but two words: “Behind… you…”