May 24, 2012 5:27 pm

‘Rushmore’ is still Wes’s peak

This week’s film releases reviewed: ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, ‘Barbaric Genius’, ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’, ‘Free Men’, ‘Men in Black 3’ and ‘Personal Best’

It’s been 14 long years since Wes Anderson made Rushmore, a hilarious story about an eccentric high school student that left audiences snorting and slap-happy. An exaggerated movie about exaggerated people, it felt as touching as his later films, such as The Royal Tenenbaums, felt self-satisfied and contemptuous of reality. Moonrise Kingdom sits somewhere in the middle. Oh, it’s no good really, and phony most of the time, but crucially it is shot on the now almost entirely obsolete Super-16 film, making everything look like that groovy-lyrical outdoor home-video The Beatles made to accompany George Harrison’s “Something”, in which even Yoko looks like someone you’d like to go camping with.

On the stormy coast of remote New England in 1965, two 12-year-olds fall madly in love and run away together to the woods. Parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand), police (Bruce Willis) and scoutmaster (Edward Norton) gather to locate them as a violent storm brews offshore. Anderson rolls about in the period detail: the portable plastic record player, the cigarettes and cigarettes, the lurid blue eye-shadow. But then Norton appears, trussed up as an overly dib-dibbing scoutmaster and the action is pushed ever-annoyingly towards the bogus.

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The most successful moments are just single shots or ideas: Bill Murray standing with wild hair and a low-hanging paunch, holding an axe and a bottle of scotch; three neat siblings sitting on the floor of the landing listening to a Leonard Bernstein recording of Britten’s 1945 Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Only now and again does one get a wash of something unifying, deep – a suggestion of adult depression and disillusion. Each of the actors has moments when they look as bereft as an alcoholic slowly collapsing face down.

3 stars

This is something that the sage documentary Barbaric Genius knows about. This is a sad film about the fate of the writer John Healy, who survived a brutal childhood and spent the whole of the 1960s drunk in the parks of London’s Camden Town. In his late twenties he was taught to play chess and later wrote a feted memoir, The Grass Arena, soon afterwards turned into an equally feted television film starring Mark Rylance (your correspondent can remember watching this in 1991 as though it were yesterday, complete with a full, tearful week required to recover). Then – a shadowy fight with his publisher, Faber, and a blacklisting of sorts.

Possibly unfairly, the Faber crowd come out of the story of Healy’s disappearance as a writer very badly, commenting primly on the grubbiness of Healy’s original manuscript. They sound here like people who might speak in glowing terms about Verlaine or Whitman but who would shudder to endure them stinking out the room. Healy – trim, angry, lost – has a compelling way of speaking; “That’s put me on to a barbed hook,” he says, with a glare, stirring in the audience both warm and tormented feelings.

3 stars

What to Expect When You’re Expecting cobbles together a narrative from the best-selling pregnancy guide, juggling five different experiences from conception to birth – miscarriage, unplanned, IVF etc. “I think it’s very, very clever, this movie concept based on the book,” frowns star Cameron Diaz in the press notes. It’s not. It’s a big nothing – not even a jivey collage of sorts or a collection of amusing sketches. Mutual loathing and eye-rolling sustain – horribly – many of the couples involved.

1 star

Free Men tells the little-known true story of a mosque in Paris that sheltered Jewish citizens hiding from the authorities during the second world war. Tahar Rahim – unforgettable in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet – plays the lead, an Algerian immigrant drawn into the Resistance by chance. His performance is perhaps too subtle – there are moments you long for him to project more dash and tension – but then his wide-awake dark eyes and babyish smile suddenly flash, assuring us he is not quite the burned-out fellow we fear his character might be.

There is rather too much here that is cinematically familiar: men in flat caps hurrying weeping children through cellars and along secret tunnels to safety. And yet there are also scenes of incongruity not seen before in cinema: Nazi officers sipping mint tea in the blossoming gardens of a mosque, feeding the fat sparrows crumbs of cake while enjoying the melancholy North African music being sung by a Jewish homosexual ...

3 stars

Men in Black 3 is a giddy reboot, travelling back to 1969 and bringing saturnine actor Josh Brolin into the mix as the younger reincarnation of Tommy Lee Jones. As usual the future of planet Earth is at stake, and the sunglassed agents Jones, Will Smith and Brolin must protect time and history from the alien scum of the universe, while at the same time allowing the film-makers to throw money at some thoroughly de rigueur Mad Men production design: the flick is a flurry of Thomas Crowne watches. It’s an assured film – although the plot is unfathomable – with a steady supply of energy, not least when it’s merrily suggesting that Andy Warhol was an agent left out in the cold (“You gotta call me in guys. I’m painting bananas and soup cans.”). Smith looks younger than ever, and remains impossible not to like, just as it is impossible not to like ice-cream or the first intimations of summer.

3 stars

A useful documentary following various young British sprinters hoping to compete at the Olympics, Personal Best points out that the final selection is still yet to take place at the UK trials in late June, and so the film feels rather thrillingly like a work in progress: some of the people featured here will not make it in the end and, like mayflies, will have already had their moment come July. In this way it’s a unique film, truly about achievement over success, and calls to mind the comforting lines from The Faerie Queene: “For whatsoever from one place doth fall/Is with the tide unto an other brought:/For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought ... ”

3 stars

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