In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps () Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko is an older, kindlier version of himself, like a man-eating crocodile that’s been to rehab. Rehab, we learn, included jail: 10 years for the white-collar wickednesses committed in Wall Street. (His personal possessions, collected on release in the film’s prologue, include a doorstop-sized mobile.) He and we rejoin the main story when he has been seven years free. He is learning how to be a father (to crusading web journalist Carey Mulligan), a prospective father-in-law (to Gekko in embryo Shia LaBeouf) and an ageing aphorist who can still turn the odd one-liner. He tells this story’s corporate villain, Josh Brolin: “You stop telling lies about me, I’ll stop telling the truth about you.”
But we do miss the old Gekko. The greased-back hair, shark smile, razor-edged braces. The man who ate wimps for lunch. Wall Street 2 – just released in the UK, long after nearly everywhere else – is a cosy-ish cruise through the new meltdown millennium. Not even written by director Oliver Stone but by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, the film uses Douglas’s demon broker as little more – in later stages – than a mildly predatory-looking ship’s purser, handing out proverbs with the petty cash.
The main characters are junk bonds. We invest with hope in Mulligan, LaBeouf and Brolin, then realise they are from the Bank of Dullsville. The film gets sentimentally moral before the end, as Wall Street never did. Even the Meltdown Moment is a little oh-that-again, for all Stone’s inventive montage of giant dominoes keeling over and plummeting camera movements down the sides of skyscrapers.
Like most of us, perhaps the director is feeling apocalypse fatigue, even though he anticipated and pre-mythologised that apocalypse. Every sickle-edge cynicism Douglas’s Gekko delivered in the first film has since proved its prophetic truth. We have reaped the “Greed is good” whirlwind. But Wall Street 2 does little more than lay out the penitential harvest festival in the church of hindsight.
Cinematically, it is never too late to reinvent the wheel. Model animation is back! A Town Called Panic () and Jackboots on Whitehall () dare us to laugh at their primitivism and we do. We laugh “with” as much as “at”, since the plastic figurines in the first film, a Belgian absurdist frolic set in a hilltop village, and the Thunderbirds-style puppets in the second, a fantasy of Nazi invasion and rearguard British defiance from the Scottish border, are designed to look daft as they deliver or detonate their matching dialogue.
Explosive almost is the word for Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s film, a hit at Cannes. A cowboy, an Indian (sorry, we can’t call a Belgian a Native American) and a horse live in a wonky yellow house. They skitter about, shrill non-sequiturs, read newspapers, receive or exchange crazy packages. One day “Cowboy” and “Indian” order 50m bricks by computer, by mistake, to build “Cheval” a barbecue as a birthday gift. For reasons beyond explanation, their house collapses. The painstakingly rebuilt walls are then stolen by a race of undersea reptiles. Our heroes give chase.
Keep up, keep up: this is Belgium, land of Magritte, Hergé and Co. (No nation is more fantastication-prone than one born to bourgeois industry and respectability.) The film’s toyshop-style figures are surreally secured to their green stands, which are used like skateboards in some scenes; in others they defy all rules of locomotion or co-ordination. “Cheval” can climb cliffs, with one hoof free to answer a mobile phone. “Cowboy”, “Indian” and others are sometimes hurled through the air like arrows to thud headfirst and quivering into buildings.
My favourite character was Madame Longrée, a piano teacher, a friend to the household and, er, a horse. She keeps phoning Cheval in the middle of one of his adventures – diving through seas or free-falling towards the centre of the earth – to ask why he is late for his piano lesson.
Too deranged at times? Possibly. It is a short step from the aesthetic jubilation of “they’re breaking all the rules” to the aesthetic surfeit of “there are no rules left to break”. Even in the midst of the more exhausting anarchy, though, a simple detail will bring us back to earth. Cheval, before he goes to bed each night, kicks off his horseshoes. What could be more plausible and domestically naturalistic than that?
Some fellow critics remained unsmiling through Jackboots on Whitehall. But I found this a hoot too. Ewan McGregor dubs his own lookalike puppet, a Kentish farm lad driving his tractor to Whitehall to rescue Winston Churchill (brilliantly voiced by Timothy Spall) from Number 10, just as the invading Nazis bombard “Downingstrasse”. While Hitler and Co take up residence in the PM’s pad – Adolf dons a regal Elizabethan dress for the housewarming and orates, “I may have the body of a weak and feeble Nazi …” – the tractor squad heads to Hadrian’s Wall to prepare the counterattack.
Braveheart, presented as an Australo-Scottish nutter with a blue-striped face (voice of Alan Cumming), puts in a climactic appearance. I thought this over-egged the pudding: same fault as in A Town Called Panic. Much of the rest is uproarious, including the hammy “Cherman” accents put in the mouths of Hitler, Himmler and a death’s-head Goebbels, raining contempt from their north-travelling airship, and elsewhere the precision incongruity with which passionate bluster and patriotism issue from barely mobile marionette mouths. Britain had to find – and has – an answer to Team America, the South Park gang’s US foray into model animation. Way to go, boys. As we said: keep reinventing that wheel.
Restrepo, () this year’s Sundance Best Documentary, powerfully portrays the doomed heroism of US soldiers in eastern Afghanistan. As almost every push into Taliban heartland is met by death, ambush or counter-push, co-directors Sebastian Junger (who wrote The Perfect Storm) and Tim Hetherington, embedded with a platoon in Korengal Valley, sentimentalise nothing. It is hard to know which is more horrifying, the soldiers thrown to sudden death like pieces of meat to an animal, or the soldiers who find excitement in being shot at: “You can’t get a better high; it’s like crack.” These overgrown kids are taking on a task abdicated by wiser, cynical elders, who strategise their young lives and deaths into a game with no endgame. Since the film, states a cruel postscript, the US has withdrawn from Korengal altogether.
Mr Nice () is an endurance biopic. The truth-based story of drug-dealer Howard Marks (Rhys Ifans) puffs on through the years, pounding a road paved with swinging ’60s/’70s/’80s clichés – from Oxford orgies to crime-exile Spanish poolsides – and pausing at bends to take a sip of water, or in this case a drag of spliff. Writer-director Bernard Rose can endow self-destruction dramas, we know, with wit and shape (Ivansxtc). Why wasn’t this film wittier and more imaginatively shaped? Linear yet directionless it lollops on, Ifans’s Marks little more than a huckster in changing hairpieces who fails to sell us the appeal of the hophead counterculture.