Cinema reviews: April 14

The ensemble drama Little White Lies made a giant splash in France, but it won’t be repeating that success in the English-speaking world. With the striking exception of the recent 3D craze, anglophone audiences tend not to be gluttons for punishment. And only one of the stars, Marion Cotillard, has much of an international reputation.

Cotillard plays Marie – bisexually promiscuous but emotionally frigid, and more comfortable among Amazonian tribes than her Parisian friends. They include a struggling actor (Gilles Lellouche) and the restaurateur Max (François Cluzet), who owns a house on France’s south-west coast where the gang assembles every summer. This year, however, there is a notable absentee – the charismatic and irresponsible Ludo (Jean Dujardin), who is in hospital after being knocked off his scooter in the film’s opening moments.

Writer-director Guillaume Canet, who made the hit thriller Tell No One, shows a remarkable lack of tact and skill in just about every area, from the rationing of revelations to the portrayal of emotions. At times the film seems like a farce without jokes, at others like a satire without observations.

In scene after scene, the characters bitch, bicker and refuse to show interest in each other’s problems, which include marital breakdown and a belated realisation of homosexual desires. The film makes a last-ditch attempt to remind us that the vapid and selfish have feelings as well, but it’s too little – and about two hours – too late.

One of the numerous problems with Little White Lies is that its dreariness prompts you to think that, all of a sudden, things will take a dramatic turn, bringing submerged tensions to the surface. This is the strategy adopted, and shrewdly executed, in the US indie film Cold Weather. It starts off slowly, with the dopey Doug (Cris Lankenau) working in an ice factory, before transforming into a noir thriller, still not exactly high-octane but with a semblance of narrative momentum.

Seemingly irrelevant details are suddenly brought into play – most significantly, Doug’s unfinished degree in forensic science and his taste for Sherlock Holmes. Portland, Oregon, the setting for so many snail’s-paced Gus Van Sant films, may not seem the ideal locale for a young man with Holmesian pretensions, but soon enough Doug’s ex-girlfriend, in town on business, goes missing. His sister and his best friend are recruited to help solve the case, though the former’s duties include driving Doug to a cigar store to buy a pipe. There are few conventional thrills on offer here, but plenty of humour and charm.

Meek’s Cutoff, which is set in 1845, delivers a rather different portrait of Oregon. Things don’t move very fast here either, but where the characters in Cold Weather are constantly being rained on, the three families in this film are in desperate search of water. Their guide is Meek, a wily raconteur with a beard of grey candyfloss played by Bruce Greenwood, but so far he has proved less than reliable. When they capture a passing Cayuse Indian, they decide to hitch their wagons to his star instead.

Meek dismisses the Indian as a heathen, but he has difficulty persuading the rest. So what if the Indian makes strange markings whenever they stop for respite? One of the women (Michelle Williams) has a feeling he’ll do by right by them, and anyway, what have they got to lose? If a western is a film in which men carrying guns lose their hats while riding swiftly on horseback, then this is a western; but it’s about as typical of its genre as Cold Weather. It delivers a patient, swoony account of itinerant tribulations in which conflict and intrigue bubble up only occasionally, and always gently.

Christian superstition of the pagan and unknown is also on display in Red Riding Hood – as is strict, homily- driven parenting. As a young girl, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) was told by her mother: “Don’t talk to strangers, go get water, and come straight home”. Needless to say, she grows up to become the kind of girl who, when asked by a friend where she disappeared to, replies: “You know that soft hay in the granary?” – before giving a saucy look.

Just as Valerie’s romantic life is getting complicated, the infamous wolf returns to the village of Daggerhorn. He is swiftly followed by Gary Oldman, playing a bearded, ranting priest who drops the bombshell that the wolf is in fact a werewolf – and that the creature has a human form by day. Catherine Hardwicke directed the first Twilight Saga film and is clearly after a similar Gothic-romance effect here. The result is at once a lacklustre tale of star-crossed lovers and a whodunit of staggering mediocrity.

Winnie the Pooh is a light-hearted portrait of Broken Britain. The hero is an unemployed, pot-bellied bear who roams the countryside in nothing but a skimpy T-shirt. He fraternises with (among others) an indolent, self-pitying donkey and a boarding-school boy who gets a kick out of slumming it. The bear’s only aim in life is to satisfy his addiction to honey, a word he is unable to spell.

Indeed, the literacy levels on display are generally poor; the plot hinges on a misinterpreted note. Even at 73 minutes, the adventures of this feckless, hard-living bear feel overextended, though the film contains some amusing postmodern play between the characters and the narrator (John Cleese) and a splendid cold-turkey dream sequence in which the bear’s honey fixation contorts the world around him.

Zooey Deschanel, writer and performer of two of the sub-par songs in Winnie the Pooh, is one of many actors – James Franco and Natalie Portman are others – who should have known better than to appear in Your Highness, a medieval comedy that will only appeal to those with a taste for silly accents, anachronistic cursing and jokes about masturbation.

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