Yet another roll of the dice

In Ocean’s Thirteen, the art of all-star piffle reaches Parnassian heights. Fabulous production values, sassy dialogue and an astral cast whirl round the summit of triviality – a heist-thriller franchise – like a galactic night sky round a bare mountain peak. “Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” T.S. Eliot once wrote. Eliot foresaw the future of Hollywood escapism. There are no human beings here, just zodiacal luminaries doing glittering things.

Assembling the usual suspects – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Co – director Steven Soderbergh brings them to Vegas to take revenge on casino king Al Pacino, who double-crossed their own Mr Moneybags and sent him into cardiac arrest (Elliott Gould, finally bedridden where he can’t overact). The gang’s plan: to prang the opening night of Pacino’s new palace so that everything goes wrong and he goes bankrupt.

Scenarists Brian Koppelman and David Lieven, of the cardsharp romp Rounders, suggest so many ways to rig a night at the tables, from programmed dice to faux earthquakes, that Nevada may issue them with a lifetime ban. The first hour hums along with the power of a faultless electric generator. Almost every actor gets a chance to wear a funny nose or do a funny voice. Many viewers will swoon at Clooney and Pitt’s suits. Ellen Barkin’s slinky casino hostess compensates, almost, for the lack of Julia Roberts.

The second hour flags, as the shopping basket of pre-established scams is ticked off. But by then we have succumbed, as the line of least resistance, to consumer delirium. We wander like morons round the filmic supermarket, where the untouchably yummy goods make us forget we came in hungry and will probably leave the same way.

Can you save a democracy by destroying democracy? Taking Liberties, a polemical documentary by Chris Atkins, assaults Tony Blair, on the very eve of his farewell, with a last cry of “foul” over his treatment of civil liberties during a 10-year premiership.

Claiming as pretext the defence of Britain against terror, New Labour revoked, says the film, the right to protest, the right to free speech, the right to privacy and other cardinal liberties. As for habeas corpus, it’s a corpse lying in a ditch somewhere near Runnymede, home of the Magna Carta. (A funny, judicious clip from Hancock’s Half Hour rubs the point home.)

This is a chastening history, though Atkins should have had enough confidence in his case to allow his opponents to defend theirs. Instead, a mongrel army of “libertarians” gathers, unopposed, on high ground overlooking the motherland, from Boris Johnson with his huff-and-puff Toryism to Tony Benn, whose far-left utopia, if ever implemented, would have eroded a great deal more democracy than the other Tony B.

The film never answers, and barely acknowledges, the question: “What should a country do when threatened by terrorism?” And David Blunkett, when home secretary, should have been allowed points for wit for saying in the House of Commons, of legislation permitting the arrest of a demonstrator taking his stand within bomb’s throw of parliament, “When you have a nut, you sometimes need a sledgehammer.”

Mostly, though, this is a cry from the heart supported by lucid directives from the brain. That Tony Blair has pushed us closer to the state once imagined by Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, is hardly disputable. Today it is Big Brother, not the banner-carrier, who needs to be told to step back to the far side of parliament square.

The state of Ireland is just as grim in John Boorman’s The Tiger’s Tail, though Boorman’s method is fiction and his manner less focused. A dual-role Brendan Gleeson plays a top Dublin businessman savaging his way to wealth, until guilt and remorse come out of the bushes in the shape of a doppelganger (Gleeson with Yorkshire accent) who might be a long-lost identical sibling.

Twins separated at birth? Is this what the maker of Point Blank and Deliverance is reduced to as a plot device? It is only symbolic, Boorman might argue. To which one might respond, the whole film is only symbolic: that is its poverty.

Gleeson is the artist’s ego as emcee, cell-divided so that there is even more of it, wearyingly ubiquitous, per screen minute. Floating through the unearthly element round him – the film is photographed for some reason in a pinkish-brown haze – are not characters so much as tokenised themes: the bolshy Marxist son (Briain Gleeson) and the shopaholic wife (Kim Cattrall), who uses clothes and jewels to camouflage a threadbare marriage. There is a lot of windbagging about materialism and inhumanity. There is little art or generosity of imagination to suggest what humankind can use to shore against its ruin.

The French film Not Here to Be Loved, written and directed by Stephané Brizé, is small but charming. Jean-Claude (Patrick Chesnais), divorced and 50, is a bailiff by day, a tango student by night. His lined face is like a guttering candle, its features suggesting a slowly melting Professor Tournesol from Tintin.

He falls for a younger, pretty tango student (Anne Consigny). He thinks his life might be rescued from solitude, shyness and the emotional tyranny of a heartless dad (Georges Wilson), visited once weekly in an old people’s home.

The fairy-tale resolutions come too thick, too fast in the last reel. The girl’s requital of feeling seems a fantasy too far. But there are loving details and comical touches, such as the perfume Jean-Claude finds for an introductory love gift. Only problem: it is called, too forcefully, “Instant Passion”. Is there a near-identical fragrance with a different name? Yes, says the sales assistant, “Desert Rose”. A sniff; an appraisal; gift-wrap to go.

The subject of the documentary Black Gold is fascinating: the coffee trade and how the wealth we throw at it every day, as drinkers, never reaches the growers, at least in bean-rich, income-poor Ethiopia, the movie’s locus. Did you know – warm-up statistic – that it takes 50 beans to make an espresso? That 2bn coffees are drunk every day? That in the past 20 years Africa’s share of world trade has shrunk to 1 per cent?

Do you recognise the American trade representative at the World Trade Organisation conference, milling hissable maxims about the might and right of the marketplace? He is Robert Zoellick, now head of the World Bank.

What a roasting this movie could have given its subject, heating its perceived villains over a flame to a pungent shade of black. Instead it just grinds on. We are escorted round coffee farms, bean-sorting sweatshops and trading floors, with all the polemical panache of a sixth-form essay.

(Where is Michael Moore when we need him?) The makers cannot even manage a good joke against Starbucks, the company we love to hate, the fat-cat stimulant-standardiser of the world’s high streets. This is a must-see movie for its subject, its facts, its history lesson. But take a thermos of black coffee to stay awake.

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