Monsters, Gareth Edwiards, 93 mins (12A)Megamind, Tom McGrath, 95 mins (PG) Secretariat, Randall Wallace, 123 Mins (U)

Giant octopus with a chemistry overload, a goofball chaser, oh, and a side order of cheese
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The Independent Culture

It may seem an absurd criticism of a film in which a glowing, 50ft octopus from outer space tosses a Jeep in the air while fending off the US Marines, but Monsters is a bit too subdued and uneventful for its own good. It's set a few years after a Nasa probe, returning from one of Jupiter's moons, crash-landed in Mexico with some stowaways on board. The northern strip of the country is now infested by giant aliens, and has been designated an "Infected Zone", but the new immigrants usually keep themselves to themselves, so the human residents get on with their lives, much like those optimistic people who live on the slopes of dormant volcanos.

A scruffy young American photojournalist, Scoot McNairy, has decamped to Mexico, too, because he knows that a decent picture of an alien – or, more likely, of one of its victims – could earn him a fortune. But he's ordered to break off from his assignment to escort Whitney Able, the daughter of his magazine's publisher, to the ferry which will take her home to her fiancé. Naturally, this doesn't go quite as planned, and the reluctant travelling companions are forced to venture through the Infected Zone by road, river, and on foot. As they go, they realise ... well, even without seeing It Happened One Night, it's not hard to guess what they realise.

Monsters follows the trend set by Cloverfield, and then travestied by Skyline, of showing an alien invasion from the point of view of the man and woman in the street, as opposed to the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the White House, but it has more in common with most indie road movies than with most sci-fi blockbusters. McNairy and Able improvised their dialogue in real locations, interacting with the real people they met, while evidence of the extraterrestrials is largely restricted to a glimpse of tentacle here and some distant whale noises there, all added in post-production. The writer-directorial debut from Gareth Edwards, a British special-effects wizard, is a resourceful, winningly original film with a patina of grimy authenticity and a Spielbergian sense of wonder. It marks Edwards out as an exciting new talent.

At the end of Monsters, though, you're left feeling that there should have been more to it. As pleasant as it is to listen to the flirty banter and to gaze at the stunning jungle scenery, there's very little plot, very little danger, and if Edwards has anything satirical to say, it's that old science-fiction platitude that it's the American armed forces, not the creatures from another world, that are the real monsters.

The central relationship doesn't progress much either, mainly because the protagonists get on so well right from the start. McNairy and Able were a couple when Edwards hired them, and they've since got married, so maybe it was inevitable that they'd be much more comfortable in each other's company than their characters are supposed to be. For once, the problem is that the actors have too much chemistry, rather than not enough.

In DreamWorks' latest cartoon, Megamind, a supervillain (voiced by Will Ferrell) with a blue, lightbulb-shaped head, defeats his Superman-like arch-enemy (Brad Pitt), only to find that his diabolical schemes are no fun if there isn't anyone around to foil them. His answer is to create another superhero (Jonah Hill) specifically to be his opponent.

There's also a sassy woman (Tina Fey), a zany sidekick (David Cross), and the industry-standard number of positive messages, dazzling action sequences, and pop-culture pastiches for the parents in the audience. What's missing, though, is anything sufficiently amusing, heartfelt or surprising to make the film stand out from the cartoon crowd. It's an undeniably polished, professional product, but its only distinction is Ferrell's goofball characterisation – and that's exactly the same as all Ferrell's other goofball characterisations. On balance, Megamind is better than Despicable Me, the year's other animation about a supervillain who has a change of heart. Just don't expect to remember it afterwards.

Secretariat, a Disney biopic of "the world's greatest racehorse", is so reverential that you'd think the horse had gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize after it romped home in the 1973 Kentucky Derby. It's set in a world where the rain always matches the heroine's emotions (rain for funerals, thunder for arguments), and where conversation consists entirely of can-do slogans cribbed from inspirational posters. The director, Randall Wallace, wrote Braveheart and Pearl Harbor, which may give some indication of its subtlety.

What's particularly ridiculous is the way it incorporates all the cheesiest clichés of an underdog story when it's actually a top-dog story: the eponymous thoroughbred is from champion stock, while its owner, Diane Lane, is a southern belle who inherits her father's farm. "His legacy to me isn't money," she says of her daddy. "It's the will to win." Well, yes. And also money.



Next Week:

Nicholas Barber watches Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp compare cheekbones in The Tourist.

Also Showing: 04/12/2010

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (83 mins, 15)

Not quite scary enough to be a horror film or funny enough for black comedy, Rare Exports still has macabre moments to savour. It's a twisted Finnish fable about reindeer trappers who catch a strangely familiar old man with a long, white beard.



The Be All and End All (95 mins, 15)

A 15-year-old with a terminal heart condition wants to lose his virginity before he dies. This low-budget, Liverpool-set comedy falters halfway through, but it's a promising debut, with a sprightly,

down-to-earth humanity redolent of Bill Forsyth.



Easier with Practice (100 mins, 15)

A shy, aspiring writer on a book tour starts having phone-sex with a stranger. It's tasteful and sympathetic, all things considered, although it's more of an anecdote than a feature-length narrative.



Freakonomics (93 mins, 12A)

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's best-selling plunge into the statistics which uncover our hidden motivations has been turned into a portmanteau of four short documentaries from different directors. Each dwells on its main idea for too long, suggesting that a single, pacier documentary would have been better.

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