Woody Allen is 75 and Ken Loach is 74, and as they both have films out this week, it would take a stronger critic than I to resist lumping them together. Besides, the connection isn't all that tenuous. Their new releases both have a rough-and-unready feel which suggests that the directors wanted to get their films finished more than they wanted to get them right.
Allen's comedy drama, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, is particularly slapdash. It's set in London – never an encouraging sign – and it cuts between several interlinked characters, à la Hannah and Her Sisters. At its centre are two unhappy couples. Anthony Hopkins has left his wife, Gemma Jones, while their daughter, Naomi Watts, isn't getting on much better with her husband, Josh Brolin. Jones finds solace in the blandishments of a fortune teller, Pauline Collins. Hopkins gets a more physical form of consolation from Lucy Punch, a caricatured gold-digger. Watts is drawn to Antonio Banderas, the owner of the gallery where she works. And Brolin's failed novelist has set his sights on a neighbour, Freida Pinto, who is flattered, bizarrely, to hear how he enjoys spying on her while she undresses.
There are a few touching, bracingly bleak moments: a drunken almost-kiss between Watts and Banderas, for instance. But that's what's so frustrating about Allen's recent output. There are always glimmers of the film he might have made, but he repeatedly sabotages it with carelessness. It wouldn't have been difficult to fix the corny plotting, the am-dram staging or the stilted dialogue, but Allen, it seems, just doesn't have the patience any more, so Naomi Watts has to slog through such lines as: "My long-standing faith in her has finally been vindicated." My own long-standing faith in Allen has finally been worn out.
Loach's new film, Route Irish, is a conspiracy thriller set in Liverpool, but concerned with some dodgy dealings in Iraq. Its hero, Mark Womack, is an ex-soldier who's now employed by a private security firm in Baghdad. His best friend has just been killed on "Route Irish", the perilous road between the airport and the Green Zone, and Womack is hell-bent on uncovering what happened.
Alas, most of his detective work consists of listening to people as they tell him their stories, usually over the phone, which is hardly riveting, especially when the audience will have solved the mystery long before Womack does. Instead of developing the plot or the characters, the film gets hung up on the message that waterboarding is a bad thing, and that it's wrong to profit from the deaths of Iraqi citizens. Even if several films hadn't made those points already, most people could have figured them out for themselves – and certainly most people who go to see Ken Loach films.
It's a relief, then, to see a movie as sleek, assured and downright entertaining as The Lincoln Lawyer. Don't be put off by the hopeless title (the hero's law office is, irrelevantly, the back seat of his Lincoln sedan) or by the presence of Matthew McConaughey. Yes, he's as smug as ever, but this time he's supposed to be, playing a fast-talking ambulance-chaser who specialises in getting guilty clients off on technicalities. Adapted from a Michael Connelly novel, it's an old-fashioned, hard-boiled LA crime story, and it's the best of its kind in quite some while.
Nicholas Barber visits Roman Britain with Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) in The Eagle
Also Showing: 20/03/2011
Chalet Girl (107 mins, PG)
Formulaic British comedy starring Felicity Jones, above, as a working-class girl who is taken on as a maid in a luxury ski lodge. The moral is that anything is possible ... just as long as you're a skateboarding champion who gets the world's cushiest job and then sleeps with the first rich bimbo who comes along.
Ballast (96 mins, 15)
Spare indie drama set in the flat, grey-green countryside of Mississippi, where three people are rebuilding their lives following the death of the man who bound them together. It's heart-wrenching, even though what little dialogue there is is spoken in murmurs.
Benda Bilili! (86 mins, PG)
Staff Benda Bilili is a group of homeless paraplegic musicians from Kinshasa who have found success on the European festival circuit. The poverty they've endured is astonishing, and the band undoubtedly deserves its fairy-tale transformation, but this film is more like a promotional video than an in-depth documentary.
Anuvahood (88 mins, 15)
Awful British council-block "comedy". Avoid.