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Never mind April; July can deliver a pretty cruel kick for the filmgoer who is pre-maturely relaxed into holiday mood and expecting sheerly enjoyable escapism from what should be safe bets: Japanese horror, French flics, the souvenir of a pop concert by a venerable group . . . Disappointments thud into the solar plexus and even sure-fire formulas splutter like damp squibs.
Janácek created an operatic masterpiece from a comic strip, but the Disney Theme Park ride behind Pirates of the Caribbean has sparked no Cunning Little Vixen. The latest in what is emerging as a saga (the third film is apparently ready, on the mass-production lines of The Lord of the Rings) serves up the mixture as before: part-ironic nods at the genre’s clichés (even the alternative title Dead Man’s Chest is taken from Stevenson, though with an added biological pun), eye-catching computer graphics, rollicking action and, the cherry on the cake – perhaps even the fairy on the Christmas tree – Johnny Depp’s outrageous pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, he who makes Roger jolly.
Depp again steals the show, combining time-honoured elements of conman, cowardly braggart, inexhaustible improviser and cheerful self-seeker with the camp daintiness unexpectedly glimpsed in the greatest comic performers. Mascara-ed and mincing, running like (besides apparently wearing) a big girl’s blouse, Sparrow combines Parolles from All’s Well with Sergeant Bilko.
He has little competition, apart from some impressive effects: Davy Jones’s barnacle-encrusted crew of the living dead (so how can they be sliced up in swordplay? Logic isn’t the plot’s strongest point), the giant kraken crushing ships into matchwood, and the waving squid tentacles of Davy Jones’s autonomous beard.
Jones is played by Bill Nighy but so heavily disguised, visually and vocally, that he could be anyone. Indeed, the cast in general ranges from the un-
distinguished (Orlando Bloom’s nondescript hero) to the talented listlessly calling it a day (Tom Hollander and Mackenzie Crook go through the motions). At 2½ hours the movie could shed, to put it charitably, 45 minutes. Humour is laboured, running gags lurch limply along, the plot is contrived-to-incomprehensible. Only Stellan Skarsgard, Bloom’s waterlogged, undead father, with real feeling shining through the piscine make-up that marks Davy Jones’s eternally damned crew, gives a glimpse of style. Go and see it for the effects.
Heading South is likely to be over-praised for ticking all the right political boxes while in fact remaining a torrid woman’s-
magazine love story. Three
holidaymakers in Haiti share the attentions of a local Adonis, Legba. French-Canadian Sue (Louise Portal) is pragmatic and cheerful. Ellen (the hypnotic Charlotte Rampling), considered snooty for her English accent, is an academic from Boston, ostensibly the most in control of herself and the situation. Brenda (Karen Young from The Sopranos) is the most complex: a late emotional developer, vulnerable, discovering love and sex in middle age.
Their privileged position in a country both poverty-stricken and corrupt contrasts with the grizzled hotel manager’s reflections on colonialism and how his parents would have reacted to his serving hated Americans. Lys Ambroise Eddy’s Albert provides a still point of decency and dignity at the film’s heart, while Ménothy Cesar fails to clarify the obliging Legba’s ambivalence. Nothing in the film lives up to the terrible detachment of the opening sequence, where a poor woman tries to give the grave Albert her teenage daughter to save her from the brutality that inevitably awaits.
District 13 is set in Paris in the near future – in 2013, although the dystopia it presents has the hideousness of a nightmarish vision of collapsing civilisation. It’s recognisable enough, however, to portray scheming politicians in the Elysée, and no-go banlieues where schools and police stations beat a retreat, leaving soul-killing tower blocks to be the contested territory of psychopathic drug lords. Cop and crook get together on a special assignment, originality lying in the added ingredient of le parcour. This “free running”, popularised in Britain by a TV
commercial, consists of ignoring such minor obstacles as tower blocks or railway tracks in getting from A to B, but leaping between skyscrapers and through strangers’ windows, shinning down cables, sprinting along parapets . . .
District 13 also has lots of splat-crunch combat, all executed by the director Pierre Morel with the snazzy, garish speed of MTV, violence handled with the knowing brutality that only the sophisticated can express. The film has the body count of Jacobean drama and the same shrugging, sardonic irony. It is, in case you hadn’t gathered, fast, furious and horribly compelling.
The week’s most agreeable surprise comes from the least expected quarter. Little Manhattan bristles with traps for the film-makers: pre-teen first love in well-heeled New York, a kid coping with parental break up, resisting bullies. It could have been dreadful but is in fact sweet without being saccharine, affectionate but not cloying, and resists the temptation of letting the sophisticated adults played by such talents as Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) appropriate the narrative point of view with knowing adult whimsy. Josh Hutcherson is the emotionally confused 10-year-old, mercifully un-cute, with a square face that in worried mode occasionally looks all too adult. A perfunctory feel-good ending can be forgiven for the film’s humour and accuracy.
The child in Ju-On: The Grudge 2 is a white-faced phantom whose selective appearances set people screaming as the modish media world of Japanese telly and horror films is destroyed by the curse of “someone who dies in the grip of anger” (presumably a critic). For all its rambling narrative threads, Takashi Shimizu’s latest conveys a feeling of un-
reasoning malevolence suddenly manifesting itself with dream-like unexpectedness in everyday surroundings.
The Beastie Boys, an American group whose abrasive image suffered when they fearfully recoiled from beer cans thrown by sceptical British audiences, are filmed at a gig by 50 cameras given to members of the public in Awesome. At the press show my own head nodded, along with many others: not to the music but in somnolence. If you like pounding monotony and unintelligible words, this is for you. If not, not.