Bill Nighy and Romola Garai in Glorious 39 / image courtesy of Momentum Pictures
Our weekly round-up of film reviews
Think of classy TV drama over the last decade and chances are you'll think of Stephen Poliakoff; think Perfect Strangers, Gideon's Daughter, The Lost Prince. Unfortunately, for Glorious 39 Poliakoff "has dumbed himself down for this glossily daft upper-crust conspiracy thriller about appeasement" (Telegraph, 2 stars). Romola Garai is the adopted daughter of an MP (Bill Nighy), but when her anti-Hitler friends start 'committing suicide', she smells a rat. "The script jumps off the deep end into a hysterical farrago of murder, kidnapping, betrayal and animal slaughter" says the Independent (1 star); "pause for breath, even for an instant, and you risk being tied in knots by the film's endless, gaudy contrivances" agrees the Guardian (3 stars). The Times sticks the final knife in with "the plodding pacing makes this feel longer than the Second World War itself" (2 stars).
A Serious Man draws on the Coen brothers' experiences of growing up in the 1960s Mid West, but Empire advises caution: "don't make the mistake of thinking this is a 'personal' movie... [though] the film does stand out as their most human and easy to relate to" (5 stars). Larry Gopnik is a middle aged Jew having a midlife crisis and turns to his local rabbi for help, but the answers he gets from his religion are almost impossible to reconcile with the wreckage of his life. "It all adds up to a portrait of dysfunctional Jewish suburbia unparalleled since Capturing The Friedmans" says the Telegraph (3 stars), and "it isn't just a comedy - the serious edge of human enquiry is there too" (Evening Standard). "Euphoric, sad and thoughtful all at once" concludes the Guardian (5 stars).
Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! is not, as you might guess from the exclamation mark, entirely serious. Matt Damon plays a pudgy executive working with the FBI to expose a conspiracy in his company - except the conspiracy may be entirely in his head. Damon "breaks brilliantly with anything he's done in his career to play a man who looks in the mirror and convinces himself that he sees Jason Bourne" says Empire (3 stars), as the plot around him "retains the giddy pace of a 1960s caper" (Times, 3 stars). "The problem... is that it's not especially funny" shrugs the Independent.
The Guardian (2 stars) has a brilliant, if cruel, way of summing up The Twilight Saga: New Moon:
"In the first Twilight film, lovely, young Bella Swan couldn't have sex with her vampire beau in case he got carried away and bit her. In this new one, on the other hand, Bella can't get it on with her werewolf suitor in case he gets carried away and claws the bejeepers out of her. In the next in the series, Bella won't have sex with the Mummy in case he gets carried away and strangles her with a bit of manky old bandage, and in the film after that, she mustn't shag Frankenstein's monster in case he gets carried away and rams his electrified neck-bolts into her ears."
Yes, the controversy about the film's abstemious message isn't going away, but what of the film? There's "some ravishing moments of ghostly thrills and spills" (Evening Standard, 2 stars), while the Telegraph says what it "misses is any animating pulse... the way the characters are insulated from real danger makes it kind of a drag" (2 stars).
The Sea Wall is based on a memoir by Marguerite Duras. Isabelle Huppert plays "a widow in 1930s Cambodia who's struggling against bankruptcy after the sea wall protecting her farmland collapses (metaphor alert)" (Independent, 2 stars). The story is played "with sensitivity but the film lacks Duras's way with words and images" says the Standard (3 stars), and the best Empire can find to say is that it's got "decent performances and beautiful scenery" (3 stars). All very middling.
Astra Taylor's documentary Examined Life brings us a group of modern thinkers to discuss philosophy in various settings. It's certainly split opinions: "what an exasperating film... Frustratingly, no subject is investigated in depth, and the glibness is dull" complains the Guardian (2 stars), and Empire is forced to concede that "for all its flashes of brilliance, too few will be inspired to reassess their place in society" (3 stars). The Telegraph, on the other hand, finds it "an addictive and stimulating experience all round" (4 stars).
The Cesar-winning The First Day of the Rest of Your Life is an "intimate drama [that] examines the fractures and foibles of an ordinary bourgeois French family over the last 12 years of the 20th century" (Independent, 3 stars). The Times (4 stars) calls it an "affectionate yet never saccharine portrait" of five pivotal days in the life of a Parisian couple and their three adult children, but the Telegraph feels that although the film's "keen to show off its period threads and craft solo acting moments, all of which it does entertainingly, we can't quite see the ties that bind" (3 stars).
"Even those who regard John Shuttleworth as a charming, avuncular presence will find their patience taxed" by Southern Softies says the Guardian (1 star). Graham Fellows's alter-ego visits the Channel Islands, "inflicting random acts of light entertainment on passers-by" (Times). The Independent (3 stars) demurs, however, saying "while it would be unwise to expect much (any) insight, there are laughs along the way, most of them springing from a wry observation of his own amateurishness".
Machan is based on the true story of a group of unemployed Sri Lankan men who conned a handball tournament into believing they were their country's official team, before disappearing into Germany for a better life. "The film is a bit rough and ready but [director Ugo] Pasolini does not forget to emphasise the desperate plight of his subjects" says the Standard (3 stars). The Times thinks it's "funny, and tragic, and only a little bit preachy" (2 stars), while the Telegraph finds space in its three-line review to describe the way the film "fights its way scrappily into your affections".
Patrick Swayze filmed Christmas in Wonderland in 2007; the Guardian wonders whether it's "too Scroogeish to suggest that had Patrick Swayze still been with us this elderly yuletide turkey might have stayed on the shelf?" (1 star). Two of Swayze's moppet children go on a spending spree after finding a bag of stolen cash. "It is truly execrable, a tawdry seasonal exploitation pic set almost entirely within a giant mall" winces the Times (1 star).
Joseph Strick's 1967 attempt to film Joyce's supposedly unfilmable Ulysses is re-released at the Barbican. While the Times calls it "a monumental achievement... 130 minutes of witty, dreamy and often surreal cinema (5 stars), the Guardian thinks it "works best in its opening sequences, with Bloom racketing about Dublin, but when we move into the Circe 'Nighttown' episode, the hallucinatory effects look like outtakes from Billy Liar" (3 stars).
Next week: the highly anticipated Bunny and the Bull and another Brit comedy, Nativity. We bet the suspense about which is better will kill you.