Film releases: February 5

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In Invictus () Clint Eastwood takes on his most challenging role to date. He plays Richard Attenborough. You don’t see him in front of the camera, but you feel him behind it. “Loves, darlings, let’s hear it for freedom, goodness and racial accord across the planet.” Eastwood’s truth-based film, platitudinously and excruciatingly scripted by Anthony Peckham (paroled from writers’ Robben Island after a short sentence for Sherlock Holmes), is like Cry Freedom without the laughs. Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela in a pious, bromidic, wet-all-over film that slops from triumph to set-piece triumph.

Everybody speaks with a South African accent, including Matt Damon (also wearing a false nose) as true-life national rugby captain François Pienaar. Freeman himself speaks in oracular chuffs and barks – an impersonation in search of a performance – as his Mandela takes up the reins of his country and, for his first unifying act in 1995, gallops it to a World Cup rugby victory.

It is no use saying, “Where’s the rest of the plot?” That’s it. It is no use saying, “Where is the variety of tone?” There isn’t any. The ex-ANC Messiah gets into a two-hour huddle with the Springbok golden boys while the rest of the nation divides into opposing armies of rhubarbers. One side listens to Mandela and choruses, “He’s got a point.” The other side says: “Remember this day. This is the day our country went to the dogs.” Mandela, not to be outdone in label-on-a-jar dialogue, says: “The rainbow nation starts here ... ”

If the World Cup triumph was not symbolic then, it is now. Eastwood and Peckham miss no opportunity for didactic semaphore. The white and black presidential bodyguards kiss and make up after early spats. The black street boy listens to the match on the white cops’ car radio (shouldn’t they be tuned to “Panda Zulu Echo”?) and is then hoisted high on Caucasian shoulders. On the rugby field a dozen Afrikaaners and one token coloured player – it’s a start – see off the New Zealand All-Blacks. If you think about it, it is, or might have been, an inspiring tale. But you don’t get a chance to think about it here: just brainlessly to coo, clap and cheer.

Michael Cera, the young actor of Juno and Paper Heart, has the star’s art of twinkling without effort. In Youth in Revolt (), a funny teen rom-com, the impassivity of his large eyes, baby-soft complexion and bird-like appearance is utterly winning – especially allied to a mind tortured in the usual American way by adolescence. RIP JD Salinger: every boy is at some age a catcher in the rye. This Teenager Agonistes is also a chickling version of The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock.

As a boy with divorced parents (Steve Buscemi, Jean Smart), competing with jocks for the neighbourhood romantic trophy (Portia Doubleday), Cera deadpans his lines in a high, almost helium voice. Director Miguel Arteta, who can do odd-loner comedies in his sleep (Chuck and Buck), has the brilliance to bring nothing interventionist at all – just good timing and an eye for perfect comic tableaux – to the blank-inflected beatitudes of Gustin Nash’s script from CD Payne’s same-title novel.

The characters and story drive the comedy; the dialogue brings the nuanced grace notes. I loved the “futurist percussive poetry” scene. And there is a nano-giggle in almost every verbal aside. (“It’s textural” is Cera’s approving throwaway as Doubleday nostalgically panegyrises the vinyl record.) When complications heat the plot towards frenzy, the language of love is still defiantly reasonable. “I burned down Berkeley for you. I lied and manipulated and had you sedated ... ” says Cera. In his voice it sounds like the sweetest rationality in the world, the commonsensical cooing of the Californian turtle dove.

Actually the star gets a double role here, doing a cigarette-dangling, Ascot-hatted French fantasy figure modelled on Jean-Paul Belmondo. “François” (the week’s second, better François) has the imaginary-mentor mandate – think Bogart in Play it Again, Sam or Cantona in Looking for Eric – and Cera does it as deftly as the rest. Add supporting players from Central Eccentric Casting – Buscemi, M Emmet Walsh (Blade Runner), Ray Liotta – and it is hard to see how anyone this side of the Grinch, or of the audience that wants to see Invictus, could fail to have a good time.

Astro Boy () is a lesser look at American boyhood. Sci-fi digimation, whirling round the screen like the furniture in a drunkard’s bedroom, whisks up the characters in its tornado. Action, slapstick, brouhaha: at times we beg director David Bowers to take a lesson in artful stillness from Miguel Arteta. Derived from a Japanese manga, the film has starry voice players – Nicolas Cage, Charlize Theron, Nathan Lane, Donald Sutherland – all trying to lend gravitas to a plot unable to keep any foot on the ground. Boy dies; boy is revived as robot; boy can do anything; boy saves universe. I prefer the terrene despair, sweet with Zen patience, of Michael Cera. But children may love the film.

With Taxi Blues (Cannes Best Director prize, 1990) Russian filmmaker Pavel Lounguine became a name to conjure with. Then he emigrated to Paris and his magic kit got lost in transit. The Island () feels faux Russian in the way Invictus feels faux South African. A far-fetched island monastery, in the icy north, is staffed by far-fetched priests. They emote, monologue and in one case anguish – the priest (Pyotr Mamonov) atoning for a youthful crime – as if nothing has changed since Mussorgsky and Dostoevsky. That may be why Russian audiences and the Orthodox Church loved the film: it’s a mystical blast from the past. The performances have a gruff splendour, the scenery is powerful. But Louguine lacks the talent, or Tarkovskian vision, to pack the screen with the kind of visual transcendentalism the story and dialogue peddle.

Gerard Johnson’s Tony () is a British black comedy about a nerdish serial killer (Peter Ferdinando). Think of Peter Cook’s EL Wisty and equip him with a hatchet. It’s a back-of-the-envelope idea with a couple of good scenes. Ideally it needed another six months’ story development.

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