Two star monstres sacrés, two thrillers, two well-established genres: one is gripping, the other is trite, predictable and phoney. The Brave One may be topping box-office business across the Atlantic but Michael Clayton is the film with integrity.
Clayton is the fixer for a big legal firm, the cleaner-up of messes, the man with contacts; not a courtroom lawyer but one who’ll direct dodgy clients to the best. Tony Gilroy’s magisterially paced first feature could have been a conventional redemption story about the jobbing and none-too-scrupulous hack finding his soul, but masterly storytelling and an uncharacteristically un-preening performance from George Clooney keep you on tenterhooks, a throwback to the great age of paranoia-inducing thrillers (The Parallax View, Winter Kills).
Here the villain is a giant weedkiller manufacturing company embodied by Tilda Swinton’s jittery, ambitious legal executive, whose slow progress into nightmare is beautifully epitomised by her chillingly elliptical conversation with corporate enforcers, bristling with euphemisms such as “option” and “containment” (they mean murder). A potentially corny plot is stylishly executed, abetted by a perfect cast, including the hypnotically watchable veteran Sydney Pollack, and Tom Wilkinson, making sense of corporate man’s mental breakdown and vision of the truth, however belated and ghastly.
The Brave One is a distaff version of Death Wish. Jodie Foster and her boyfriend are attacked in a park. He dies, she becomes a killer. Just like that. Nothing about this movie works. The psychology is inexplicable, the heroine’s professional and personal background ludicrously unconvincing – a successful media personality, Foster’s radio presenter seems to exist in a social and familial void – and a moral duel set up between Foster and the detective who rumbles her is both pretentious and shallow. Never mind the dishonest cop-out, never mind Naveen Andrews’ hilariously nerdy Estuary accent (evidently American casting’s idea of sexy Englishness), the film’s final unforgivable fault is its sheer, plodding dullness.
The dullness in Right of the Weakest is only that which the director Lucas Belvaux intends to convey: the long littleness of unemployment in provincial Belgium. There are no villains here (though there’s an ex-jailbird) and no angels (though there’s a loving young family), only stressed humans frayed around the edges. They slide almost too smoothly into planning a crime; inevitably things go wrong. The downbeat mood convinces. What might have been tedious becomes an involving and nail-biting thriller.
What should have been exciting in Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution becomes a muddle. The title implies a plucky little man – or woman – up against the system, an Ealing comedy perhaps. Some hope: this is not even a toe-curling Brit feelgooder, but falls flat between comedy, domestic drama and even, heaven help us, serious issues. An idealistic communist schoolteacher from Yorkshire (Iain Glen) takes his family to East Germany in 1968. The earthly paradise is not what they expected; there are additional family tensions (husband and wife, parents and children) and many accented Chermans, variously funny, romantic and sinister. Two moments flare into life, both family rows, showing what might have been and how Catherine Tate, potentially a fine straight actress, is wasted.
After Titus, the most Fellinian Shakespearean film that Fellini never made, Julie Taymor has worked increasingly in theatre, notably in opera. The best moments of Across the Universe have the defiantly camp exuberance of opera, not to mention the irony intrinsic to operatic sensibility (possibly explaining some critical derision). It falls between Beatles-song anthology and romantic 1960s saga, its method somewhere between The Singing Detective, complete with a quintuple vision of Salma Hayek in nurse’s uniform, and the Fab Four’s Magical Mystery Tour. Psychedelia, Alan Aldridge – visual references abound, along with star vignettes from Bono to Eddie Izzard. The film’s too long but when it works, as in a slickly choreographed military induction scene with Taymor’s trademark giant puppets and carnival heads, it’s exhilarating.
Two eminently likable offerings feature cheerful battles against the odds. The eponymous Kenny is slightly hurt at the occasional reaction to his job – supervising Splashdown, a portaloo business that provides relief at sporting events, pop festivals and other occasions at which humanity gathers, imbibes and leaves its mark – and struggles to maintain a relationship with the small son of his broken marriage. He keeps cheerful in this Australian mockumentary, a huge success beneath the Southern Cross, very funny as long as it sticks to Kenny’s job, less so when it rambles unwisely into a romantic subplot.
The credits for Rocket Science include coaches for stuttering and banjo, which suggests a losers’ convention. In fact the first feature by Jeffrey Blitz of the fascinating documentary Spellbound charts the struggles of his stammering teenage hero with charm, sympathy, a lack of sentimentality and no easy happy ending as young Hal tries to overcome his impediment to take part in school debating competitions. A prize-winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the movie has a slightly too self-consciously literary tone that places its adolescent protagonist (Reece Daniel Thompson – your jaw aches in sympathy prompting him during his more inarticulate moments) firmly in the tradition of American youth finding itself but is none the worse for that. Lovely performances all round create small-town competitiveness, frustrations and aspirations.
A pair of film records of stage shows – but no need to compare and contrast the very different. Gypsy Caravan – When the Road Bends evokes the US tour of Roma musicians whose astonishing diversity ranges from the Indian group with their bejewelled drag dancer to oompah-based Romanians to a family flamenco troupe to the matronly Macedonian “Queen of the Gypsies” who has fostered 47 children. The glimpses of home life range from show-business professionalism to poverty-stricken necessity. All are united by Roma language and culture, and memories of persecution.
John Waters addresses a theatre audience in This Filthy World and very funny he is too, more conventional as a stand-up than you might expect, more delightful as a chatty companion, and even more European in a dry, throwaway sense of the absurd than always gets through to his earnestly enthusiastic admirers.