Comfort amid the catastrophe

For a second successive week, sea water sweeps us away. First Life of Pi, now The Impossible (opening in the UK January 1), a truth-based tale of the 2004 tsunami. For “Happy New Year” read “Have a nice Doomsday”. We survived the Mayan calendar. After that relief tinged with anticlimax, let’s re-live the catastrophe that devastated coastal Thailand. (Warning: this review contains, and could barely be written without, plot spoilers.)

Movies make disaster viewer-friendly. The Ten Commandments, The Towering Inferno, Titanic: how we love clinging to the life rafts of our cinema seats as cataclysm sweeps over us. But there are different kinds of disaster feelgood. The Impossible should have been at least, inter alia, a gruelling interrogation of hope and faith. How do we believe in God or a beneficent nature after this? Instead, after a bare hour of gruelling, as director J. A. Bayona, screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez and cinematographer Oscar Fauro (the team behind that class-act Spanish horror film, The Orphanage) show us vacationers Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and their three children spun-washed by the mother of tidal waves before dispersing to separate survival dramas, all roads lead to resolution. Never mind the clogging of those roads with debris painstakingly replicated or digitally magicked, as the craning-high camera eyes the unearthly devastation.

It’s a true story, though the original family was Spanish. And it’s a known story precisely because – the film’s own built-in, endemic plot spoiler – the family’s members all came through. Once Watts and her eldest boy (excellently played by Tom Holland) limp to the nearest hospital, teeming vividly with the wounded and needy; and once McGregor is re-glimpsed whole if damaged après le déluge, we brace for the ecstasies to come. Come they will, with fulsome music, “floods” of tears, and hints, not least from Geraldine Chaplin’s cameo as a kindly, kooky stargazer, that there is an all-seeing mercy up in them there heavens.

Tell that to the 300,000 people who died. What of their stories? Do we really want to cling to catastrophe’s single comfort station, as if it tells us more, or medicates us with a more meaningful moral and spiritual message, than all the horrors that didn’t end in a hug, a homily and a final heave of rapturous music?

In Jack Reacher Tom Cruise tries to re-boot his career. Some of us after Rock of Ages would like that pleasure ourselves. A size-10 Cuban boot, planted in a strategic place, might have reanimated the dozy tropes of this thriller, a pilot feature for a planned franchise. Cruise’s hero is an ex-military cop drafted by lawyer Rosamund Pike, cleavage to the fore (in Hollywood even classy Brits must booty up), to investigate a sniper massacre. It’s high-gloss tripe with noir pretensions. Even Robert Duvall and a cameo from Werner Herzog, as a villain with Sybilline sibilants, cannot save the day.

In Parental Guidance Billy Crystal and Bette Midler play dysfunctional grandparents. Ouch, and twice ouch. Wasn’t it only yesterday that I watched Crystal play the gay junior brother in TV’s Soap series? And watched Bette Midler shrill with pre-menopausal yearning as the young(ish) soul singer in The Rose? Time flies, like a bat out of hell.

This family comedy, for contrast, potters along like a jalopy past its expiry date, squeezing mileage from the oldest of generation gap clichés. Grandparents and kids enjoy an unfussy bond that eludes – surprise! – parents and children. The reasons are obvious: child-rearing disciplines put a strain on loving give-and-take. But to screenwriters Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse this seems a revelation. No wonder their film seems frozen in a rictus. Everyone smiles anxiously, brightly,
strickenly, but the jokes delivery man is late on his round and the world is about to become 13 years ahead of 20th Century Fox.

The independent sector of American cinema, you would think, would do better. But this is Christmas. Distributors don’t want to worry filmgoers with originality. Safety Not Guaranteed has received praise from some hipster critics on indie-approval auto-pilot: “smartly funny . . . crackling” (Sight & Sound). But it’s a lame caper about a young man (Mark Duplass) building a time machine and the girl reporter (Aubrey Plaza) who befriends him. There is also a winsome digression involving a heist. And there is a subplot about . . . But no: life is short and art, some art, is too long.

If good intentions paved the road to heaven, Zaytoun would have us treading the gilded path to salvation. In bomb-torn Beirut in 1982 a Palestinian boy groomed for militancy (Abdallah El Akal) befriends and helps to liberate a captured Israeli pilot (Stephen Dorff). The boy wants something in return: to be smuggled across the border to plant a little tree, his slain dad’s souvenir of lost statehood, in their stolen homeland.

When a film’s heart is said to be in the right place, the missing question is always “What about its brain?” Film-maker Eran Riklis serpentines through coincidence and contrivance as if through sniper fire. There is a destination to be reached – rapprochement between political enemies – and the film will get there even if it has as many plot holes as a flak-jacketed colander. The sense of place and time is well caught: the bomb-cratered Beirut buildings like Emmental cheese, the mendacious beauty of the mine-laden countryside. But these characters never really existed, we feel, in any place/time except Wish Fulfilment Land.

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