Sweetness and apocalypse

Image of Nigel Andrews

Sugar (★★★★☆, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)
Last Chance Harvey (★★☆☆☆, Joel Hopkins)
Shadows in the Sun (★☆☆☆☆, David Rocksavage)
Anything for Her (★★☆☆☆, Fred Cavayé)
Terminator Salvation (☆☆☆☆☆, McG)

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson are two lonely hearts who sweetly meet in London. They are walking along the Embankment when the ground starts to shake and a 20-foot-tall biomechanical droid appears, zapping everyone and reducing the South Bank to smoke and ashes. In Norfolk, in an old flint-faced farmhouse, 90-year-old Jean Simmons is living out her last days with her visiting family when a flying saucer crash-lands and cyborgs emerge to annihilate East Anglia. In Paris, fugitive criminal Vincent Landon and his jail-sprung wife Diane Kruger are planning to leave France, but a giant digital image of Arnold Schwarzenegger rears up on the skyline...

Dream? Nightmare? Fear? Wish? None and all. In Britain, in the summer weeks leading up to Wimbledon, hallucination is the homage paid to an imaginary plenty by an actual famine. This is the time of year when the depleted filmgoer starts to invent his own fusion-plotted scenarios, distributors having gone into clearance mode in the advance days of the silly season. Their thinking: “How much rubbish can we take off the shelves while no one is looking, and finally dispose of, since the public is either outside catching the sun or inside catching the sports?”

For more on the actuality of the Dustin/Emma romcom, and the week’s other minor or major casualties, see below. The best film of the week – though subtitles and starlessness may keep it from multiplexes – is a small-budget, Spanish-language drama about Dominican baseball players. What is good about Sugar? It has no simple storyline and no sense of its own importance: it is, dare one say, like life. It ambles richly and complicatedly through the early career of a black baseball pitcher pulled from cub teamwork in the Dominican Republic to join spring training with a US Minor League team, first in Arizona, then in Iowa. Every tremor of hope, doubt, excitement, anxiety and finally of that disorienting moment when the dream itself mutates – for a man can be wrongfooted by changing aspiration as well as changing reality – is caught by the writing-directing duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Flick.

Their last film, Half Nelson, was a sort of Skid Row Hamlet, capturing the hesitancies and mind-crises of a young schoolteacher. Though promising, it hadn’t quite processed its own pedagogy; it tended to sermonise about the decency of its hero’s subversiveness. Sugar is dazzlingly free of message creep. We are perplexed, yet fully persuaded, every time that Miguel (played with miraculous transparency by Algenis Perez Soto) is raised up by self-belief before a roaring crowd or cast down by self-doubt, and every time an honest emotion – his pride in his pitching prowess, his attraction to the daughter of the Iowa Quakers he rooms with – is dashed on the rocks of the (to him) specious or inauthentic, whether the girl’s recruiting work for God or the team’s for American Dream hoop-la. When he finally finds his own zone of serenity it is as believable, and as quietly moving, as all that has gone before.

Last Chance Harvey is the week’s six-hankie offering. Imagine Richard Curtis remaking An Affair to Remember: maudlin amiability is the game’s name. Dustin Hoffman is a divorced New York jingle composer, threatened with the sack. Emma Thompson is a mother- dominated spinster unable to find love, in spite of looking glamorous in a strawberry-blonde hairdo. For 40 minutes Hoffman’s plot, decanting him into London to attend his semi-estranged daughter’s wedding, evolves separately from that of Thompson, a government statistics collector who clipboard-accosts people at airports. Her mum (Eileen Atkins) is her only, but hourly, cellphone contact, just as Hoffman’s is his redundancy-threatening employer.

Two people, two hearts, two stories. Finally hero and heroine meet and quaintly accelerate towards courtship: he a Dustinesque pother of nods, tics and ingratiation; she an Emma-style force-flood of controlled repression that will, and finally does, burst its banks. Anyone nasty enough to dislike the film is a summer Scrooge. Anyone mad enough to isolate it for praise has caught too much sun.

Here it is again – sun, sweetness, regret – in Shadows in the Sun. A piano strews its sonic confetti across images of bygone Norfolk as tragedy stirs. We are in the late 1960s, but the Virginia Woolf frocks and the men’s white shirts and braces more suggest the 1930s. Granny (Jean Simmons) is slowly dying; her son (James Wilby) is closing in on the family homestead; his daughter (Ophelia Lovibind) is experiencing the first slow stirrings of love. Time stands all but motionless. Wilby keeps plinking Träumerei on the Bechstein. And there is, no doubt, honey still for tea. Two stars for comfort, one star for originality. Three stars, perhaps, to Miss Simmons, celebrating her seventh decade as a doughty ornament of British cinema.

The French thriller Anything for Her has a livelier way with predictability. The joli laid Vincent Lindon, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s rightful heir, brings a swashbuckling anguish to a miscarried-justice plot seemingly set on Gallicising, and galvanising, Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. In later scenes, though, the film congeals with repetitiveness. And Diane Kruger’s beauty remains awesomely unimpaired by imprisonment.

You understand why a critic yearns for a couple of hours of being zapped and vaporised by futuristic machinery. But Terminator Salvation catches the seasonal disease. Underscripted, under-energised, a triumph of formula over flair, it stomps on for two hours in a nightmare of self-important inconsequence.

The year is 2018, machines rule the world and everyone has had a humour bypass. Wasn’t the triumph of the Schwarzenegger cyborg saga its ambushing wit? That beefcake heft was a parody of every known or imagined superpowered physique. That clotted accent spoke lines meant for neither robot nor human being. Here Christian Bale, playing resistance saviour John Connor, is a stubble-bearded face as anonymous as an Identikit sketch and a hoarse voice delivering Judgment Day encyclicals. (His famous, YouTubed wobbly on the set had more drama and variety than anything he offers on screen.) The cinematography is in the dystopic-sludge mode. The action is meaningless, non-stop and exhausting.

As surely as some of the principal characters are half machine, half human, Termination Saviour is half movie, half video game: made not for the cinema but for the playroom or kid’s bedroom. There a spectator may zap away until he/she falls asleep, reassured that the world can be a non-stop audiovisual tinnitus that will keep at bay, until nightfall, anything so dangerous as thought, beauty, quietude and reflection.

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