Film releases: January 13

What a week. The film critic feels like a traffic policeman attempting point duty at a frenzied intersection where the lights have died. Many of you want to read about sex (Shame). More, exclaiming “This is the pink paper,” want to read about money (Margin Call). Queuing up at the crossroads, you honk your horns. But I’m sorry. For critical duty and world readership, I first have to let through a horse.

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse has a date at the Golden Globes after the Royal Film Performance. The traffic tailgating this film is denser than that behind director Steve McQueen or the newest Meltdown movie. War Horse is grand cinema; it is multi-chambered popcorn populism (“Bang, bang! Pop, pop!” in surround-sound stereo); and though it isn’t any good it will be the talk of the town for a few weeks while cleaning up on Kleenex supplies.

Spielberg once made Duel and Jaws. He still had an artist’s sharpness and appetite for danger in Schindler’s List. In War Horse the talent is banalised beyond recognition. This is a sentimental, fulsome, platitudinous yahooing of novelist Michael Morpurgo’s equine odyssey, previously a book and play, about a horse turned from farm steed to battle-beast during the first world war.

Morpurgo gave us a four-footed version of “ploughshares into swords”: a fable of ultimate kindness and ultimate cruelty, forged from the upheavals of war and peace. Spielberg gives us anodyne scripting, overcooked visuals – Dartmoor becomes John Ford country, the sunset finale is Gone with the Wind gone horsey – and a non-stop chasing after catchpenny rapture and catharsis. As “Joey” (16 different horses, serially processed through makeup) slogs across a war-torn continent, each of his succeeding owners speaks accented English – in this Europe no one is handicapped with a foreign language – while every new locale is either a picture-postcard Heaven (windmills, thatched farms) or a run-me-up Hell from the studio war imagery archives.

Nothing feels fresh, nothing real. Most of the characters are pantomimic contrivances, from David Thewlis’s wicked Devon landlord to Niels Arestrup’s whitehaired French nag-lover. We are marched through cloying kidult rhetoric for 150 minutes, ending with the inevitable pull on our hankie pocket, as wheedling as a beggar pulling on our change pocket. The only difference: the beggar is more deserving.

Steve McQueen’s Shame offers little but blood, sweat, sex and tears. But its intelligence is born on a different planet from War Horse. The characters, often seen like aquarium creatures through glass – New York’s skyscraping, shape-changing glass – have the kaleidoscopic complexity those refractions and reflections hint at. It takes a video-artist/filmmaker like McQueen to show that some forms of apparent visual distraction are, contrarily, a means to map and explore character.

Forget about “sex addiction”, the film’s notional theme. McQueen himself has bandied this dubious term, best known as a get-out-of-jail card for married Hollywood superstars using psychobabble to flee scandal for rehab. Sex “addiction”? For sure there is sex obsession; or what used to be called erotomania. It has provided some seminal legends: Don Juan, Casanova. It has also given us darker deeds of cruelty, predation or, here, self-destruction.

Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is a Manhattan businessman with a sex life both compulsive and controlled. Computer porn; home-visiting hookers; sometimes a brief back-alley knee-trembler with a singles bar pickup. He always withdraws before love happens: it’s a form of emotional prophylaxis. Into his life crashes sister and nightclub singer Carey Mulligan, a bleeding heart in a needy body. She likes a little love, or stay-over companionship, with her promiscuous sex. For days and nights Brandon can no longer nurse his lonely carnal sovereignty. Life has intruded. Things combust. Perhaps there are old sibling ties, unsorted and ambivalent. Or perhaps Brandon’s desire has always been just despair writ carnal.

It’s wonderful to have a film with so little explanation. Shame, like McQueen’s Hunger, is an enriched form of the enigma of visual art. Even the title is a puzzle. Shame? Whose shame? What shame? Abi Morgan’s screenplay, a bizarre companion piece to her Iron Lady script, co-wrought with the director, is terse, quizzical, elliptical, sometimes shocking. If you want answers to a many-dimensioned tale of the corrosions of love and lovelessness, you must bring your own life and thoughts. No one will fail to find, in this strange, disturbing jewel, some reflecting facet of himself or herself.

JC Chandor’s Margin Call, an all-star drama about a Lehman-style banking house on the eve of the meltdown, arrives very late. “Where have you been?” we exclaim. “The Lehmans tumbled over their cliff four years ago. You yourself were at the Berlin Film Festival one year ago. What’s the holdup?”

Perhaps the film doesn’t fit a mould. It has intelligence and dry wit, but also a sly wink of designer trashiness. We could be watching a 1970s disaster film with the statutory stellar cast. Demi Moore is Head of Risk, ringing cash-register changes on her throaty charisma. Jeremy Irons is suavely mercurial as a mid-Atlantic CEO – the accent blows both ways – with no time or head for figures (“Speak to me as you would to a child”). Kevin Spacey, trailing the kudos of a business-cinema filmography stretching from Glengarry Glen Ross to Horrible Bosses, is the Head of Sales, emotionally divided between a dying pet dog and a dying investment firm.

Forced to confront the overnight revelation of tsunami debts, the firm decides – this is the difference between oceans and businesses – to escape to the low ground. Toxic portfolios will be dumped. The only questions are how and on whom. As the drama develops, the subplots are cleverly brought together, the supporting stars (Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany) grin and bare their souls, and we the world look on, saying, “Ha! It could never happen again.” Until of course it does.

Say hello to the start of the new year’s art-movie migration season. Tatsumi from Singapore and A Useful Life from Uruguay have both flown large distances, birds of contrasting feather but comparable, esoteric weirdness. Singapore filmmaker Eric Khoo’s animated homage to Japanese comic book artist Tatsumi Yoshihiro blends biopic facts with stories from Tatsumi’s manga fictions. Grimly bewitching tales about Hiroshima, murder, poverty are done in spectral black and white; the life episodes in colour. It is loose in shape, but alluring in style and storytelling.

Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life, filmed in a sepia-tinged, endearingly battered-looking monochrome, is a Borges-like yarn from Latin America about a tidy life meeting the end of its tether. A Uruguay Cinematheque employee/film-buff, engagingly played by critic Jorge Jellinek, emerges into the scary freedom of the real world when his penniless picture-shrine closes. Will this middle-aged bachelor of arts – a celibate for the screen – discover life, at last, rather than make-believe? It depends on how you define life. Or indeed make-believe. The film is short, at 67 minutes, but teasing, mazy, memorable.

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