Reviews: New films also showing (28/12/2012)

 

Midnight’s Children (12A)

Deepa Mehta, 146mins

Starring: Satya Bhabha, Shahana Goswami

*

There’s a school of thought that authors whose books have been groomed for a screen adaptation should back off and let the people who know about movie-making get on with it. Salman Rushdie does not belong to that school. Far from it, his fingerprints are all over this film of his 1980 Booker-winning novel, executive-producing, screenwriting, even narrating the damn thing in a wry, knowing voice that teeters close to insufferable. Director Deepa Mehta, whose credits include the fine elements trilogy Fire, Earth and Water, perhaps coped better than we know with the author shepherding his novel about like a farmer with his prize cow, but she has ended up all the same with a woefully inert and sluggish movie. A nation’s agony is refracted through a tale of two boys, one rich, one poor, who shortly after their birth at the midnight moment – 15th August 1947 – of India’s freedom from English rule, are swapped by a meddling nanny. What follows is more Jeffrey Archer than Mark Twain. The progress of these changelings is regularly gauged via hallucinatory meetings of children who also share that fateful birthday, parking the film in an awkward halfway house between magic and realism. Violence and romance are crunched together in the screenplay’s whimsical-portentous tone, characters magically disappear and the years grind by. (It stretches to a bum-numbing 148 minutes). And still there’s the Rushdie voice-over, commenting, explaining and killing any possible suspense the story might have hatched. It’s meant to be a film of wonders, but the only wonder is that the writer-narrator-exec-producer didn’t star in it, too.

Safety Not  Guaranteed (15)

Colin Trevorrow, 86mins

Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass

****

Here’s a smart, off-the-wall comedy ostensibly about time travel but really bound up with loneliness and the search for love. It takes off from a bizarre advert placed in a classifieds column: “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed”. A staff reporter (Jake Johnson) recruits a couple of interns to help track down the ad’s author in Ocean View, Washington, though for him it’s just a pretext to hook up with an old flame from his high school days. One of the interns, however, a snarky college grad named Darius (Aubrey Plaza), takes the assignment seriously and does indeed find the guy behind the ad, a grocery-store clerk named Kenneth (Mark Duplass). He’s a solemn-faced and somewhat paranoid loner who thinks Darius might have what it takes to be a fellow time-traveller (“I haven’t brought a candidate this far into the training process”). First time film-makers Colin Trevorrow (director) and Derek Connolly (writer) juggle the tone between indie eccentricity and wistful romance, and keep us guessing as to what the hell Kenneth is building in his hideaway shack. Plaza and Duplass are hugely likeable as sorcerer and apprentice, so that even when the plot flies off the rails you’re still rooting for them to reach safety – which, as we know, is not guaranteed.

Parental Guidance (U)

Andy Fickman, 104mins

Starring: Billy Crystal, Bette Midler

*

They left it late, but the makers of Parental Guidance may just have clinched the palm for Worst Family Entertainment of 2012. It’s the story of a generational clash in methods of parenting as ageing couple Artie and Diane (Billy Crystal and Bette Midler) are required to babysit their three grandchildren while super mum Marisa Tomei is on holiday with her husband. The comedy gets off to a dreadful start as Artie, a baseball commentator, homes in on a couple in the crowd who’ve announced their engagement – and gratuitously mocks the lady’s appearance. This from Billy Crystal, whose own face looks like it’s been hand-peeled with a fruit knife. Then try to laugh along as he wrangles his three unlovely grandkids (called, for no comic reason, Harper, Turner and Barker) and the script takes desperate recourse to poo and vomit gags. On the plus side Marisa Tomei is what she always is – adorable – without being given anything to help her. Gone are the days when Crystal could hold it together with his nice-guy impersonations – now he can’t even move his features to indicate that a joke is in progress.

Grabbers (15)

Jon Wright, 94mins

Starring: Richard Coyle, Ruth Bradley

***

Like Shaun of the Dead, this Irish horror comedy strikes a nifty balance between laughs and scares, and trusts the remainder to charm. Ciaran (Richard Coyle), a sottish Garda on a remote island off the Irish coast, is falling for bright-eyed colleague Lisa (Ruth Bradley) who’s on a two-week secondment from Dublin. But romance must take a back seat when a tentacular alien lifeform starts picking off the islanders (“It’s no feckin’ lobster”, as someone observes) and growing larger by the hour. Also like Shaun the movie sites its big setpiece in a pub, where the locals  hide out once it’s established that the monster cannot digest human blood that’s been mingled with alcohol. The solution: to get royally plastered. Kevin Lehane’s script serves up some droll lines to go with the bibulous atmosphere, and the playing, by Ruth Bradley in particular, raises the spirits in every sense.

Zaytoun (15)

Eran Riklis, 110mins

Starring: Stephen Dorff, Alice Taglioni

**

Great things were expected of this Middle-Eastern road movie following director Eran Riklis’s poignant Lemon Tree, but sadly it’s much less exciting than it ought to be. Opening in Beirut on the eve of the Israeli invasion of 1982, it concerns the fate of an Israeli pilot (Stephen Dorff) who’s shot down and taken prisoner by a cadre of PLO insurgents. One of his young guards is an orphaned Palestinian street kid, Fahed (Abdallah El Akal), who strikes a deal with the captive: in return for his freedom he must take him to find the village of his late parents in Lebanon’s south borders. Working from a didactic script by first-timer Nader Rizq, Riklis never quite gets the pace out of second-gear, despite the journey being spiked with perils – hostile patrols, a minefield, a dodgy motor. The humane characterisation of two natural-born foes is enhanced by Dorff and El Akal, whose darkly soulful eyes carry its burden of anguish. But its movement is terribly slow and unconvincing, particularly when so much feels at stake.

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