If this is Heaven, give me Purgatory

When I first saw the title To Rome with Love I thought, “Oh dear.” This must be one of those star-studded portmanteau films set in a tourist city, in which bite-sized narratives compete for glossy, winsome inconsequentiality. It is. The snag is it’s by Woody Allen. So we search – oh, how we search – for concealed treasures beneath the tosh. From the maker of Annie Hall and Zelig, even from the maker of Midnight in Paris, there must surely be more than this simpering sextet of stories about love and sightseeing?

Allen himself, looking anxious at the edges, plays the retired avant-garde opera director, a wrinklies’ Robert Lepage, who jets in with psychoanalyst wife Judy Davis to meet his daughter and her Italian fiancé. The fiancé’s dad (Fabio Armiliato), overheard singing in the shower, becomes the New Lepage’s new project. Soon he’s a star hitting the high Cs in La Scala, not without, ho ho, his soap, shampoo and portable shower. Then there is Jesse Eisenberg, two-timing his girlfriend Greta Gerwig with jabber-mouthed moppet Ellen Page. Alec Baldwin wanders through as the youngster’s mentor, just like the Bogart ghost in Play It Again, Sam. (If only.) Then there is Roberto Benigni, waking up one day unaccountably famous: a sort of Kafka vignette done for laughs. (If only.) Then there is Penélope Cruz’s hooker doing a Pretty Woman shtick. Then – do you want me to go on?

I’d like to say: then there are giant scorpions from outer space which descend to vaporise the Eternal City, purging it of the cast, crew and endless earfuls of “Volare” on the soundtrack. Oh Woody. We can forgive you anything. But can you forgive yourself? On screen he has a couple of funny lines, one about an aeroplane black box, that take us back to the glory days, to the Allen Mirabilis. His films once were those giant scorpions. They bit and stung us till we were hysterical: life’s sorrows rendered uproarious. In To Rome with Love happiness, bromidic optimism and, yes, love stalk every street. It’s like being in boring old Heaven when you thought you had won a ticket to exciting, seriocomical Purgatory.

About Elly
is the film that Iran’s Asghar Farhadi made before winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar with A Separation. Three years old, it is as fresh as paint: paint that hasn’t flaked or faded, paint that daubs a subtly encrypted anti-totalitarian message in the “simple” fresco of its tragic tale. A woman disappears, presumed drowned, during a weekend trip to the Caspian. The incident is L’Avventura-like in its mystery and lack of closure, its echoing-on of a discomfort that seems to speak of bigger loss. Her friends – though soon discovered to be barely that – roam the beach, bonding in their distress, wavering between hope and hopelessness. Reflects one woman: “A sad ending is better than sadness without end.”

The dialogue Altmanishly overlaps, filling the vacant space of Elly – vacant before (no one knows quite who she was, except that she taught one of the women’s children), more vacant now – with the characters’ own pain and sudden, loss-liberated garrulity. Farhadi uses a handheld camera, as if to eavesdrop on reality. Here is the chatter of panic trying to organise itself. The body is bound to wash up, some say. But is there a body? The virtues that glowed with a scary wattage in A Separation – that incandescent social fable mixed with a mordant jostle of contrasting psyches – are softer here. They seem to present or attempt a picture of solidarity in sorrow. But really it’s a picture of loneliness, in a land where speaking together in honesty and sharing the cries of the heart are things you do only in a crisis or an emergency.

“We’re the Sweeney, shithead. You’re nicked,” says actor Ray Winstone, fast becoming the world’s most fearsome lump of blubber since Moby Dick. In The Sweeney he is huge and glistening; he breaks through walls as easily as Moby broke from oceans. He spouts invective at jet-spray force. (Keep a towel handy.) But will this film erase memories of the old John Thaw/Dennis Waterman hit TV series about Flying Squad detectives, which ran and ran? Probably it won’t. The new Sweeney is cobblers, albeit cobblers on fast wheels. As Winstone’s sidekick, Ben Drew, alias Plan B, knows about rap sheets and how to deliver them (just about) as a screen actor. But Winstone’s is the only star presence. He should next be cast as Falstaff on stage. Remember who suggested it first. National Theatre, I want my cut.

Hope Springs
rambles like a climber rose to which no one has taken the pruning shears. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones’s marriage is in trouble, so they travel to Maine to see sex guru Steve Carell. You can guess the set-up. Streep is loving but love-starved. Jones is a grumpy midlifer who has the hump but no longer, how shall we say, the inclination to perform it. Meryl wants Tommy to talk out his feelings. Tommy can barely find his feelings. A long search ensues. The audience gets restless. Fall replaces summer. The year’s mayflies die. Moby Dick is rumoured to have returned from the dead off Nantucket ... (This is my plot, but I’m starting to prefer it.) Hope springs; but not without a witty, pithy script it doesn’t.

I love many Guy Maddin movies, especially Careful, that tale of bewitched Alpine villagers who must whisper to deter avalanches. But Keyhole, a kitschy-baroque homage to film noir, is strangled by its own nostalgic mad love. Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini and Udo Kier engage with the weird style, at once tenebrous and tentacular; the reaching shadows and reechy repressed eroticism, the old dark house risen as if from a Hollywood flat-pack. The character-introducing captions coax a titter now and again: “Milk-drinking Ned, another tortured soul ... ” Mostly, though, off-form Maddin merely conjures up the long cold nights of his native Canada and a film-maker’s need to tell stories – any stories – to keep the wolf and the bank manager from the door.

ParaNorman 3D
and Premium Rush compete for the kidult market. The first is a spooky-funny digimation from the Coraline studio. A boy sees dead people; he also talks to missing-persons posters and roadkill. The main plot – about combating a witch’s curse – is less fun than the gothic gags on the margins. Premium Rush gives us a boy on a bike, non-Dardennes-style. Haring through Manhattan on a courier’s two-wheeler, Joseph Gordon-Levitt nearly crashes into everything – this should be in 3D – while romancing a girl and outsmarting a villain (Michael Shannon). Simple but fun.

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