Film releases: October 14

A lousy week at the movies fronted by Real Steel, the fevered story of a bad father, a good son, and a boxing robot, who travel around the US in the year 2020 competing at increasingly lucrative state fairs and televised tournaments. Australian actor Hugh Jackman is the bad father – a man who can’t find any point of entry into human society, save through the global admiration felt for the fighting robots that he controls with a games console at the side of the ring.

Jackman got famous as the snarling Wolverine in the X-Men series but was once a hit on stage at the National Theatre playing Curly in Oklahoma!. In Real Steel he’s called on to be both archetypes: a ferocious loner on the brink of curdling, and an obvious sweetheart. And he’s pretty affecting without pushing it, making the film what it is: popcorn-crunchingly amiable but never quite sizing us up and going for the kill. Everything else in the movie diminishes around Jackman. Evangeline Lilly appears as the love interest and seems to weep in every scene, as though hyper-conscious that Jackman’s zingy romanticism is blasting even her harlequin beauty and her coolness-with-a-line off the screen.

The fight scenes themselves are dead dull. Two motorised robots slugging it out? Big deal! Although the design of ATOM, Jackman’s robot, is nice. ATOM is first discovered buried in a lonely quarry, as rusty as Iron Man and with the simple, oblong head and visor of a medieval knight found slumbering on a Cornish tomb. When he’s switched on and ready to fight his eyes glow a Paul Newman blue and he says not a word or even a bleep, merely standing politely behind his owners like an uncomplaining Chewbacca.

Executive producer Steven Spielberg was cannily insistent that most of the robots in the movie were actually built full size, even though the technology exists to render them entirely digitally (see the crazed Transformers series.) “In the digital world the actors are reacting to practically nothing,” Spielberg has said. “But when the actor can actually interact with something and touch it and look it in the eye, the performance blossoms.” No shit. But then Spielberg learned early with a certain rubber shark that in the world of monsters an actual physical presence – even a heaving, ridiculous simulacrum of a physical presence – is key in make-believe. What fun is there in simply producing a laptop from the dressing-up box?

One of the four films directed by women competing for the main prize at Cannes this year, Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s “erotic fairytale” Sleeping Beauty wrings as much tension from its unusually flat tone as it possibly can. Emily Browning (who has the innocent beauty of a rosebud) stars as a student who supplements her income by working as a sleeping beauty: drugged and unconscious she submits entirely to a string of wealthy old men’s various masochistic desires.

It’s all heavily inspired by Anne Desclos’s 1954 novel The Story of O: the mansions, the money, the pompous men, the silent prostitutes serving brandy in their crotchless knickers. But where that narrative had a feel of preposterously heavy velvet curtains, this film is washed in a curiously frigid blue, with long, one-take scenes, unshowily acted. Frustratingly, it dulls-out ruinously as the parade of desiccated gits (some caught in the quiet stir of dementia) who handle the dumb, suffering Browning begin to merge morbidly into one. The film – although so very stylishly – promises a moment of truth that never quite arrives.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is the new documentary from Morgan Spurlock – an experience about as appetising as it sounds. Spurlock made his career with the 2004 doc Super Size Me in which he ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month and filmed the damage it did to his body (a slam dunk if ever I saw one.) In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold Spurlock unveils the extent to which product placement and advertising – subliminal and otherwise – consumes the movies. Spurlock’s twist is that this documentary itself is funded by the advertisers it promotes, a gag that bores when stretched beyond elevator pitch level.

Does anyone really believe Spurlock is appalled by advertising? Or by anything much? Certainly he always tends towards a light sprinkling of jokes that come over as not just a lack of sincerity but a total absence of courage. Is he laughing because he’s so convinced of his argument and all other ideas are contemptible? Because if you’re angry Morgan, be angry, and if you’re not, keep us out of it, do. His documentaries increasingly feel – like Nick Broomfield’s and Michael Moore’s always have – merely a template for a career.

The number one thing here is to keep the Spurlock show on the road, to desperately find issues to make a film about, and to put himself at the centre of his films and then preach self-evident truths to the converted (who else is watching?). There are way too many scenes given over to Spurlock being flattered for comfort here: “you’re a great client!”; “you’re edgy!” ;“you’re really doing something different and innovative!”. And it even contains a scene of him sniggering at the people who are funding the whole enterprise (“I can’t keep a straight face!”). Really, it’s quite odious.

The Three Muskateers in 3D suffers from the same design philosophy that afflicted The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing and Around the World in 80 Days. When faced with a story taken at least nominally from, like, “books” full of “history” and all, the line is: panic and go steampunk. Hence we have the Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom in Clash-black and purple) floating about aboard an airship while the legendary cavaliers Athos, Porthos and Aramis make Mission Impossible-style assaults with bits of old muskets and lasers. It’s the Heath Robinson approach: shove enough stuff in there and enough people will find something attractive.

All this is indescribably tedious bar the moment one first realises that the young man playing D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman) was Mel Gibson’s courageous eight-year-old son in the 2000 war epic The Patriot. In that film Lerman attended a wedding on a beach closer resembling a Caribbean utopia in a Sandals brochure than the 1775 American war of independence. I hope for better things for Lerman because he has poise – a quite outrageous confidence.

Two small films produced in the UK happen to contain terrifying moments care of two sadly underused actresses. In Albatross, Julia Ormond plays the disappointed wife of Sebastian Koch in a coming-of-age and end-of-marriage story.

In Retreat Thandie Newton is the disappointed wife of Cillian Murphy in an end-of-marriage Straw Dogs-style horror flick. And boy do they nail these moments of quiet marital despair. The eye-rolling, the taut mouths poised to never quite voice their catalogue of hurts, the crossing of arms in aggressively pastel jumpers. What a long, slow campaign it would be for either husband to win back their love. One flinches sincerely at the prospect, but completely forgets both films.

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