Me and Orson Welles / courtesy of Cinema NX
Our weekly round-up of film reviews
The "me" in Me and Orson Welles is Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a young actor hired by Welles to be part of his legend-making 1937 production of Julius Caesar. The play is beset by problems, as is Richard's love life, but this is really about the great man. Christian McKay "doesn't so much play Welles as channel him. His cigar-chomping cruelty, galloping creativity, twinkling charm: it's all here, and often on display at the very same time" (Telegraph, 4 stars); however, McKay seems to have been let down by the film around him. The Independent finds it "rather slack in its plotting" (4 stars, pretty much for the acting), while the Guardian (2 stars) laments that "as so often with films reverently dealing with theatre folk, the directing itself becomes exasperatingly theatrical and inert", which is quite strange when you consider it's helmed by Richard Linklater. But the Evening Standard concludes that "this is only a celebratory comedy in essence... Linklater and his company have managed something of serious intent very well" (4 stars).
"In years to come they will teach the early work of the director Richard Kelly in film schools as a cautionary lesson in how to destroy a promising career in three easy moves" says the Times (1 star), with more than a hint of satisfaction, as introduction to The Box. Richard Kelly? He's the guy that came up with Donnie Darko, and followed it up with the critically mauled Southland Tales. Now he brings us the tale of Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, offered $1m if they push a button, but someone, somewhere would die as a consequence. Intriguing? For a short story, perhaps, which is maybe why it's already been a Twilight Zone episode. "But this film just goes interminably on and on, like some pop video to a prog rock track from hell, padding things out to feature length with all sorts of incredible gibberish and extraneous nonsense about the Mars landing and government conspiracies" complains the Guardian (1 star). Empire, oddly, awards 4 stars despite believing the film "will befuddle, confound and frustrate, its refusal to stick to a single tone, or even genre, maddening if you're not prepared to fly with it".
Heavyweight cinematic adaptation alert! Disgrace is JM Coetzee's Booker winner transferred to celluloid, with John Malkovich taking the part of the Cape Town professor who resigns his post (in disgrace) and retires to his daughter's remote homestead. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, "the film becomes a haunting, even harrowing, meditation on the tainted legacy of white rule in South Africa" (Independent, 3 stars); the Telegraph (3 stars) agrees it's "a faithful adaptation, but one that's been indifferently shot by director Steve Jacobs, whose blunt technique tends to flatten the book's morose charge". "A heartfelt, intelligent film with two very good performances at its centre" is the Guardian's verdict (3 stars).
The Girlfriend Experience is one of Steven Soderbergh's 'one for me' films; the low-budget, experimental type he does in between the glossy stuff. The pre-release focus has been on the elevation of porn star Sasha Grey to fully fledged, improvising actress, but the Times (3 stars) says she "gives a mesmerising, glacial performance as the high-class call girl" paid by bankers to listen to their woes about the collapsing economy as much as for sex. Where Soderbergh is "still as likely to serve up a stinker... [this] gives off a fragrant pong" says the Standard (2 stars); Empire reckons there are "good central performances but short on plot" (3 stars).
2009's Best Foreign Language Film finally arrives on our shores from Japan. In Departures, a Tokyo cello player accidentally becomes an undertaker's assistant, preparing the dead for burial - in a country where touching the deceased is a big taboo. "A safe and emotionally generous crowd-pleaser" says the Telegraph (3 stars), and the Times is disappointed by the way "it all gets syrupy in the last 30 minutes, with a battery of tear-stained finales as overblown as they are unmoving" (3 stars). On the other hand, the Evening Standard thinks the film's "cynicism, ironically, is what makes the optimism of its last act so moving" (4 stars).
Cracks is set in a 1930s boarding school where Eva Green plays the enigmatic Miss G; adored by her girls and adoring, in turn, a bewitching new pupil. It's "a straight-laced melodrama that takes a detached and somewhat passionless view of its characters, who are all fervour in their actions" says Empire (3 stars), while the Independent (2 stars) thinks it "seems to be aiming for the ominous mood of Picnic at Hanging Rock, but it's more like Mallory Towers meets Black Narcissus". As Miss G's facade comes under increasing pressure, the Guardian notes how the film "totters on high heels and strikes all manner of poses in the mirror. Sooner or later it's bound to fall over" (2 stars).
It's lazy, but easy, to label Only When I Dance as a true-life, Brazilian Billy Elliot. Two teenagers strive to escape from the favelas via top dance schools but Beadie Finzi's documentary is, "ultimately, about far more than dance - themes include family, dreams and determination" (Times, 4 stars). The Telegraph (5 stars) praises the "a heart-in-mouth poignancy and suspense", while its "wit and compassion" touch the Guardian (4 stars).
If you saw the original Descent, you might be surprised at a sequel. Didn't everybody die? Ah-ha, not in the US cut! So for The Descent: Part 2, survivor Sarah is forced by the local sheriff to lead a rescue party back underground, straight back into danger. "The script struggles to explain the inanity of its conceit (hey, let's take the traumatised disaster victim underground to act as a guide, even though she's A BLOODY AMNESIAC)" complains Empire (2 stars); the best the Standard can say is that "competent film-making renders the film watchable" (2 stars). But the Independent, "even acknowledging its flimsy credibility and recycled stalk-and-seize tropes, still jumped out of my seat a couple of times" (2 stars).
There's an alien on that thar Planet 51, and the fearful residents want it dead. The twist being the alien is a NASA astronaut while the residents are little green men. The film "takes an interesting premise and drains the joy out of it" whimpers the Times (2 stars), as the Guardian can only muster the energy to damn with faint praise a "moderately funny family animation" (2 stars). "Any excitement is submerged by the relentless barrage of trite sci-fi allusions and nudge-nudge gags aimed solely at adults" sighs the Telegraph (2 stars).
Michael Keaton makes his directorial debut with The Merry Gentleman, and also plays the hitman-in-search-of-redemption who rescues Kelly Macdonald, fleeing from an abusive relationship. "The film-making is never less than sensitive and the acting is reminiscent of old film noir epics" says the Standard (3 stars), whereas the Guardian is irritated by Keaton's "niggling bout of creative constipation" (2 stars). However, the Independent thinks it "just about survives its odd shifts of tone" (3 stars) - which is more than we'll do if we can't shift this "tidings of comfort and joy" earworm the title provoked.
Next week: oooo, Where the Wild Things Are! Plus, pandemic paranoia for that pre-Christmas spirit, Carriers.