There’s design fervour and intense colour in Epic, a 3D computer animation from the team behind the notably profitable Ice Age. What’s missing is the solid hilarity of a character like Scrat in that movie – the sabre-toothed squirrel always trying and failing to eat an acorn because of circumstance and biology. Nobody in Epic – which is about tiny civilisations living in trees and hedgerows at war with each other and the forces of eco-decay – has much personality. They all do the obvious: fight and make up, fly and embrace, hopelessly repetitive and interchangeable. The conventionality of the thinking and characters here is truly absolute.
Of course it is every child’s über-fantasy: the cosy nook under the tree in a secret corner of a secret forest where miniature people live, wearing dandelions for hats and catching lifts on the backs of sparrows. In fact it isn’t an exclusively childish fantasy – the most potent line in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the philandering Tomas’s lullaby to his inconsolable wife: “You can sleep, sleep in my arms, like a baby bird … like a tiny parrot, like a little song, a song sung by a forest within a forest a thousand years ago.”
The notion of absolute secrecy, of being tucked into a warm forgotten gingerbreadiness so central to most children’s fiction is the central fantasy of Epic and the film goes no further than trying to evoke excitement through the design of this fairy world – the cute, the minutely worked and rendered. There are microscopic gloves and teensy petal-and-leaf-made knee-pads and breastplates – designs clearly inspired by decades of Tolkien calendars. And even more by John Anster Fitzgerald (“Fairy Fitzgerald”), the Victorian painter whose love of opium and his gentleman’s club kept him indoors dreaming of robins garlanded with sorrel and Lilliputian redheads with captivatingly pure faces peeping from beneath turbans made from electric blue fronds – and always Hieronymus Bosch demons hesitating in the shadows. Here the bad guys wear the grotesquely pointed masks of medieval plague doctors and corpse collectors.
Like Disney’s Fantasia (a flop on release in 1940) this movie will have one hell of a second life on DVD, particularly cherished by anyone on drugs, despite being resolutely lacking in mystery. Its explosive, almost psychedelic colour is first rate, especially in 3D.
The Hangover Part III’s running time feels like a death sentence. The final tranch of a trilogy that already imploded creatively in Part II (although it aced financially, making half a billion dollars more than its budget), it takes the least amusing character in the series – the maniacal Chinese gangster – and elevates him to the principal part, leading the other stooges (including Bradley Cooper) in another unfascinating chase around Vegas. Every moment Mr Chow is on the screen is an irremediable mistake. Worse, more attention is given to Zach Galifianakis whose failings as an actor are now too obvious. Incautiously overpromoted following the first Hangover (which was very funny) it is now beginning to sink in that he has that classic Saturday Night Live style giveaway: someone who is very good in a tiny area of trademark lines, tropes or looks but is completely lost when required to be good for longer than a minute. He is not funny. He is not even hungover (the film-makers couldn’t think of a way to bring that in until the closing credits).
The Big Wedding unites Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon, and Diane Keaton with a subtlety approximating prehistoric sign language. A farce set at the kind of wedding people have exclusively in American films (in perfumed back gardens overlooking a personal lake), Sarandon oozes in Shalimar, Keaton readjusts her shirt collars (the stiff white shirt collar must surely be written into Keaton’s contract) and De Niro – there is simply no explanation for what he is doing. The film is only endurable to those who can blank out the memory of what this actor did when he was young and what he once meant to us.
Something in the Air opens in February 1971 at a demonstration led by Le Secours Rouge, part of the Maoist movement in Paris, and brutally put down by the police, which further radicalises a group of students. These teenagers spend their days designing protest pamphlets and smoking stoically in cafés – eyes down talk, talk, drag, talk – enraptured by the post-1968 struggle, travelling to communes in Italy and Kabul, pulling each other’s clothes off in derelict chateaus and couchettes on trains, determined to live modern lives free from the consolations of domesticity. The hectic theories that have spiritual and erotic dominion over these young people and compel an elaborate network of secret meetings feel astonishingly inert. The kids seem to have endless funds (from conveniently absent and generous middle-class parents) to facilitate the struggle, which sits embarrassingly in a film about youthful, scrupulous honesty.
Benjamin Britten – Peace and Conflict may well be the first movie funded by a school. Gresham’s in Norfolk has produced several notable students, including the spy Donald Maclean and the composer Benjamin Britten. This semi-dramatised documentary – part-funded by Gresham’s itself – pushes the public school as a place where all sorts of ideological enthusiasms might be freely admitted and where, for Britten, any leftwing dalliance hardened into a life-long pacifism. Sometimes awfully po-faced and always creakingly amateur, the movie does nevertheless tell the unforgettable story of Britten travelling to the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in 1945 to play a concert with Yehudi Menuhin.
Very recently liberated, the camp was still a place of intense grief and horror – my own grandfather had been among the first British soldiers to enter that camp, and in his own hidden way never got over it. The cellist and ex-prisoner Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, then very young and sitting in the noisy hall where they were playing half-starved and wrapped in a blanket (she was mortified that the people around her wouldn’t shut up and listen), recalls being mesmerised by the then-unknown, 32-year-old Britten, and even wrote to a friend to describe this magical, intense young pianist. Years later, living in the UK, she played for Britten and produced this crumpled missive to show him. The purest, most sincere fan letter ever written.