Film releases: January 28

Two films about dying and contact with the dead. Potentially powerful subjects. But for much of Hereafter and Biutiful – the first a Clint Eastwood-directed three-pack of stories by screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen), the second a Barcelona-set modern Passion from the director of Babel – both films lie in cinema’s terminal ward, heartbeats away from demise. One bed bears the sign: “Do not resuscitate.” The other, Eastwood’s, is a tangle of tubes and wires trying to connect with each other in a meaningful, healing way.

Hereafter begins with its best scene, a spectacularly staged tsunami inundating an Indonesian beach resort. A young French couple are parted. She (Cécile de France), a journalist swept up and under in the flood, hallucinates in her near-death throes a seeming afterworld: silhouetted figures in a bright-lit vastness. She survives, the couple meet again. But now they are estranged by their unequal insights into death and after-death.

In San Francisco, retired psychic Matt Damon, trying to kick the clairvoyant habit, meets a beautiful, needy girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) pining to contact her departed. And in London – this is a world triangulated by eternity’s mystery telegrams – a boy loses his twin brother in a street accident. Will the sibling contact him? Is he doing so when the boy later faces a true-life catastrophe? (Think London six summers ago.)

The start of each story promises so much. Yet the more often we ask “yes, and then?”, the less often Morgan and Eastwood stump up a convincing answer. There are more celestial flash-frames as hand touches hand; more near-misses with mortality; and a calamitously silly finale at the London Book Fair. Here the characters’ fates contrivedly join up and in one stand Sir Derek Jacobi is chanting Dickens, as if the Doughty Street bard could confer extra dignity, meaning and resonance on a drama where too little exists of each.

In art cinema it has long been a recognised truth: the only thing worse than a turkey is a turkey in crucifixion pose. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful is just that: a long essay in messianic attitudinising and the Mexican director’s first film since his Guillermo Arriaga-scripted trilogy. That opus began blindingly with Amores Perros and ended near-deafeningly (with self-importance and globalist allegorising) in Babel.

You would think Iñárritu, gone solo, would be leaner and meaner. But his tale of a cancer-stricken gangmaster for illegal aliens and part-time psychic for the bereaved is two hours of bloated pretension. This hero, though played with defiant intensity by Javier Bardem (Cannes Film Festival Best Actor), is less a human being, more a suitcase full of Christly agonies and white men’s burdens.

Separated from his alcoholic, bipolar, embittered wife – another suitcase – he is caught between salvation and damnation like a valise hemmed in on an airport carousel. He cares for his Chinese illegals, yet a careless accident dooms them. He has a good heart, but his prostate and liver are fatally diseased: cue hospital scenes played with an Oberammergau-worthy suffering grandiloquence. He meets his dead father and discusses life and eternity. A black African Madonna and child symbolise grace and hope .. If the film were any more portentous, it would be laughable. In the event – partly redeemed by Bardem – it is merely stupefying.

Barney’s Version is quite different. This is a US Calvary, its emotional-crucifixion tales charging toward us with flashing brass and waving sabres. A Mordecai Richler novel means a lively, sprawling, Jewish seriocomedy. During his wedding party, Paul Giamatti’s Yiddisher hero makes a pass at a beautiful, wise, witty blonde, played by Britain’s Rosamund Pike. (Thrown on to the Hollywood riverbank, the actress thrashes about with cool style.) The girl becomes his life-long love, snatched for clandestine trysts before her turn comes for the wedding aisle. Then it all goes wrong. But what self-respecting Jewish story wouldn’t?

This screen version gives star wattage to supercharged storytelling. Dustin Hoffman does Giamatti’s roguish dad. There are diverting – or, if you’re not party-minded, distracting – games of spot-the-famous-director in supporting roles (David Cronenberg, Ted Kotcheff). Giamatti himself intensifies his claim to be the new Richard Dreyfuss (yesterday’s Duddy Kravitz in the cinema of Richler) and does his best with the pathos and sad comedy worked, sometimes overworked, from the Alzheimer afflictions of the last act.

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same ... ” Rudyard Kipling fathered the concept of neo-realism: discuss. Triumph is a charlatan. Disaster, another scoundrel (but more tenacious), is the default condition of our lives, certainly of those in Men on the Bridge. This is a Turkish film of fine-spun pessimism and broad-loom compassion. In the week’s second tripartite story structure, three characters work daily on the Bosphorus Bridge linking Europe to Asia. A young flower-seller; a traffic cop; a cabby, criss-crossing in a shared-ride taxi.

Film-maker Asli Özge scouted out an authentic cabby and flower-seller, who play themselves, and cast an actor as a cop only because the police refused to lend him a real one. The film is all about the cracks in people’s lives: the better jobs the flower-seller vainly tries for (a hi-fi store, a kebab kitchen), the cop’s internet-dating woes, the cabby’s love for a wife who always wants something more and better.

How magical a film is when the characters – never mind if they’re losers – are humanised in such miniaturist detail. The tics and habits that make them tick (the flower-seller and his mate groove to an iPod by shared headphones). The illogicalities that pass for logic in the heads of the stressed. The cabby’s work-seeking wife says to an employment agent: “I want a job with computers. But I don’t know anything about computers.” Those moments spared from fretting over jobs or incomes, dates or married lives, the characters sometimes spend plugging into the blame game. “It’s the Kurds.” “It’s the EU.” No, it’s just life. You batter away at it; it’s the only way to stop it battering away at you. We come to know these people so well that they’re still by our sides when we leave the film.

Disney’s Tangled is the Rapunzel story in 3D and digimation. Catchy songs and music (Alan Beauty and the Beast Mencken). A comical horse called Maximus. (Don’t look between his legs, he has been gelded by the decency league.) And two heartthrob lovers sundered by an evil mother (voice of Donna Murphy). She gets the best lines and tunes. The Scariness Award, though, goes to the heroine’s blonde hair. Oozing in blond coils or hissingly descending from tower tops, it looks like a giant boa constrictor after an accident with the peroxide bottle.

Writer-director James L. Brooks, of the great Broadcast News and greater As Good As It Gets, falls from greatness in How Do You Know. Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson star in a rom-com with too much rom (winsome) and far too little com.

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