I was all set to lead with The Tourist (). Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in starring roles. Germany’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck directing his first film since The Lives of Others. Spy fun in Venice. Murder, intrigue, mistaken identity. Can’t be bad, can it?
Oh, dear reader. If you take my advice you will never know. Do anything. Arrange an appointment in Sumatra. Go to the moon. At all costs stay away. The two stars give the appearance of having had a numbing drug administered before the movie. Jolie pouts with inanition, Depp’s self-effacing performance looks like a bid for deniability: “I was never in this film.” The plot slaloms arthritically from one predictable twist to another. Even poor Venice is barely recognisable. The main setting is the famous Danieli Hotel which sits, where it doesn’t, in the middle of the Grand Canal. (That’ll freak out Italians.) It is not enough for a movie this bad to go back to the drawing board. It needs to go back to the beginning of time, to the Big Bang, when the possibilities of its existence first took shape as a tiny particle of matter …
So let’s start with Enemies of the People (). War crimes cinema gets a new wrinkle, or scar of honour, in Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath’s enthralling investigative documentary. Sambath, our Cambodian guide and narrator, goes up against the very regime, or its survivors, that slew his parents and brothers during the killing fields era. His main quarry? Nuon Chea, once Pol Pot’s “Brother Number Two”. Chea, when first found, has no suspicion his interviewer may also be his nemesis.
Shades of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, as this new Kurtz is tracked to his lair. For Conrad and Coppola the landscape traversed was a jungle. Here it is a jungle of the mind: archive footage of a grisly epoch, on-screen reminiscences of Khmer Rouge torturers and executioners. These men turn tyrant’s evidence to guide Sambath towards the truth. On the way we pass through primitive madnesses almost surreal. One veteran of the 1975-79 wilderness years: “I always carried a human gall bladder to drink.” Sambath’s moment of self-revelation with Chea is awesome. You can hear a pin drop, or perhaps an executioner’s trapdoor. Cambodia and its war criminals are being cleaned up even as we write, a just if belated “purging” of the atrocities spawned by the Khmer Rouge’s earlier, more brutal one.
There are different forms of tyranny and demagoguery, some disguised as fantasy literature. I hope there is a purgatory for children’s story writers who corrupt innocent minds with Christian allegory. My aversion to CS Lewis abates a little, though, before Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (). Once more the kids are swept up by a suture in reality – a sea painting – and emerge in Narnia. But happily my favourite character is to the fore, the talking mouse Reepicheep (voice of Simon Pegg). Happily too, the film has been attacked by a modest storm of visual inspiration. Lewis’s donnish medievalism is blown away by designer Barry Robison’s island fantasies, from a craggy, beetling shore town spectacular with antiquity to a vast topiarised landscape of corkscrew bushes and roiling lawns. Shut your ears to the dialogue, and the dinning of New Testament pedagoguery, and you might almost have a good time.
The trucks have been out to grit British cinema again. The cold ground crackles underfoot, or under tank tread, as In Our Name
() rolls into the north-eastern town where returning Afghanistan soldier Suzy (Joanne Froggatt), suffering the first flickers of war trauma, tries to reintegrate with her children and also-unstable squaddie husband.
Grit? Yes, and an earnest implacability redolent of TV drama. You feel the sat-nav has been set to “educative itinerary about cruel lessons of war”. No diversion will be allowed into byroads of humanising idiosyncrasy. Brian Welsh’s film is strongly acted even so. Froggatt brings off a scene of near-breakdown in a classroom – where she and a colleague are guest-lecturing – in which only her performance prevents us saying, “Hey, surely she would be carted off for a cup of tea before things got this difficult?” There are several “hey, surelies” in this film. But the tank trundles on and finally reaches its honourable, medium-powerful showdown.
I have never been more shocked by a best film prize than by the Venice Golden Lion for Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (). Two hours of whimsical nothingness, playing variations on the superior Lost in Translation. Steven Dorff is the broken-wristed film star convalescing in LA’s Chateau Marmont hotel, that Versailles on Sunset Strip. There’s a funny early scene with two room-service pole dancers; then Coppola repeats it. She repeats almost everything. (It’s a film about boredom.) For redemptive variety Elle Fanning is drafted in as Dorff’s estranged daughter. Will these two castaways learn to re-bond? Will Dorff’s paternal love conquer his solipsistic ennui? Or will the film just limp on?
In one scene the hero picks out a few bars of the Goldberg Variations on the hotel lobby piano. Hey (I thought), if this spoilt millionaire is so bored why doesn’t he learn the opus complete? Instead he must have what Coppola grandly calls his “existential crisis”. I kept thinking how good the movie might be – how lithe, how left-field, how subtle and sly – if Translation’s Bill Murray were playing the main role. Self-pity? He’d chuck that. The little daughter? He’d chuck her too, or find a way to make her maudlin subplot either astringent or genuinely affecting.
On Tour () is Somewhere in French. Or almost. But better. Actor Mathieu Amalric, directing and co-writing, plays the jaded, frazzled touslehead managing a group of burlesque beauties. They are American; the itinerary is the French coast. The plot exists as a means to show the “hero” at the end of his tether, a tether held and when necessary pulled by bossy stripteasers with names like “Dirty Martini” or “Kitten on the Keys”.
Two little sons from a broken marriage tag along. A busty supermarket checkout woman makes the impresario hero “check out” her breasts. An allergy to hotel muzak becomes a running gag. When the film is not too grim to be funny, it is too funny to be grim. “Forget it, Dad,” says his small son when Amalric can’t complete a bedtime story. Whereupon Dad, reaching for the world he knows best, starts improvising a fable about a giant balloon-dancer …
A Serbian Film () is a violent, revolting shocker about people making a sadomasochistic porn movie. You look at it as you would ogle a car crash. Deflowerment with decapitation; raped baby; incest with sodomy. It’s an allegory (we’re told) of atrocity and autocracy during and after the Balkan wars. Though the story is structured with Jacobean cunning, the horrors are merciless. At the end we hold up our innocence like a slaughtered child: “Look what you have done.” The film replies: “You stayed to the end, didn’t you? You’re still here.” Not even critical duty, perhaps, can quite absolve us of that.