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If you press too many buttons at once, a machine goes haywire. It’s the same principle with a movie, yet the lesson is never learnt.

The Last King of Scotland, the first fiction feature by Kevin McDonald, who won non-fiction glory with Touching the Void, is like a runaway vacuum cleaner. It starts efficiently, hoovering up choice hanks of apocryphal history in the tale, from Giles Foden’s prizewinning novel, of a young Scottish doctor straying into the employ of Uganda’s Idi Amin. Then at half time it decides to push every button in sight and, lo, the machine explodes. Suddenly the ceiling is gone, the house is gone, the ozone layer is gone.

The only man still standing is Forest Whitaker as Amin. Sheer bulk, a big voice and the podgy vigilance of the face – although Whitaker’s one lazy eye forces the other to do all the holocaustic glaring and twitching – make this actor the perfect fit for the Ugandan maniac. He moves like a human bull, a brilliant low-angle rear shot introducing him as a slouching silhouette mounting a speaking platform. Soon he has become a cross between the mud monster in Spirited Away and Rod Steiger in almost anything, with a touch of Peter Sellers’s Dr Strangelove.

Yet even Whitaker would have benefited from a film that set off his maniacal behaviour rather than mimicking it. The first hour of the screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen) and Jeremy Brock develops James McAvoy’s medic as the perfect character foil. Tyro to Amin’s tyrant, he is an adventure-seeking innocent disposed to favour Uganda’s dashing power-seizer over the decaying casuistries of the British. (“A firm hand is the only thing an African really understands,” seedily purrs Simon McBurney’s local diplomat).

But suddenly – as suddenly as every other turnround in this film – McAvoy is given too much plot. Asininely, in view of the increasing evidence of the dictator’s butchering madness, he is required by the script to bed Amin’s wife (Kerry Washington), to plot Amin’s poisoning and to end up in a life-or-death race with Amin’s conducting of historical crisis (the Entebbe raid).

The controlled panache of the film’s first half, where the camera work of Anthony Dod Mantle (Britain’s man in Dogme95 Denmark, where he has lensed for Trier and Vinterberg) is a miracle of burnished finesse, turns to melodramatic overreach. A line that wiped the smiles off our faces in an earlier scene – “We are not a game, Nicholas!” says Whitaker to McAvoy in focused, deadly earnest – comes back to haunt the movie. Suddenly it is nothing but a game, this over-accumulation of action-thriller jeopardies, this coup d’état in which a film’s government by historical credibility is overthrown by the rule of hokum and Hollywoodism.

In Ghosts, another documentarist turns to fiction. But the invented stays closer to the authentic in Nick Broomfield’s film, which starts and ends with the infamous deaths by drowning of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire, in 2004. They were illegal immigrants – “ghosts” by nickname – and they paid for the risk they took in mollusc-harvesting at dusk beyond the tideline. (They were provoked in part by the bullying territoriality of British cocklers.) Between the framing scenes, in which Broomfield builds menace from the first shot of creeping water to the horror of five panicking people atop a floating midnight minivan, comes the imagined story.

This, paradoxically, is shot more documentary-style. The film’s flat-on, uninflected humanism has Broomfield’s unmistakable voice – that near-comical dryness known from his commentaries for Kurt and Courtney or Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer – although there are few laughs in the storyline. A young Chinese girl (played by a real immigrant, Ai Lin Ching, who came to Britain illegally in the 1990s but later won legal status) pays to be smuggled to London in a six-month trek by truck. Then, in England, there is the baptismal ordeal of low-pay jobs and swindling bosses.

Weakly, for Broomfield, this doesn’t seem such an ordeal. The meat-packing plant for supermarket poultry is more hygienic and humane than we might have feared. Onion- and apple-picking jaunts in the country: well, anyone might be happy doing those. Ai Lin is even given a choice, unlike some heroines in recent human-trafficking dramas, over whether to take up prostitution. She says no, thanks.

That’s why Ghosts is so odd. It is well made, well acted by nonprofessionals (with a terrific turn from Zhan Yu as the wheedling rogue of a gangmaster) and well-intentioned. But the indignation seems ill-secured, with some of the arguments leaky as colanders. The film berates the British government for not paying the drowned illegals’ debts to their smugglers. But why ever should UK taxpayers stump up for those? And it laments the lack of compassion and job opportunities for law-breaking stowaways. Shouldn’t Broomfield be complaining about the conditions in their own country that sent these desperate folk across the world in the first place? Shouldn’t he be reserving his picket place at the Beijing Olympics? Isn’t China where his film’s imperfect world begins and its true guilt belongs?

Thomas Jefferson said every American was entitled to life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In The Pursuit of Happyness – that’s a designer dyslexia (the film will explain) – these ideals are distant glimmers for the hero played by Will Smith. He wants a piece of the American dream, but keeps waking in a cold sweat whenever his job-search alarm clock goes off.

The film should have been touching, or funny, or illuminating, or something. Instead it is schmaltz on a stick. Smith is fast overtaking Denzel Washington as holder of the Sidney Poitier Cup for Afro-American Sanctimoniousness. He plays a single dad so battered by poverty that he and his son (perkily played by Smith’s own son Jaden) hole out in a homeless hostel, down to their last greenback, while Dad seeks a stockbroking job. It’s a truth-based story but, like many true stories commandeered by Hollywood, its every detail is unbelievable. How come Smith’s two business suits, worn in alternation day by day, come rain, snow or smog, never show any wear or tear? And this destitute man’s designer shirts, also apparently self-cleaning, would provoke smash-and-grab raids in Bond Street or Rodeo Drive.

The best way to get money in America is to steal it. The worst way is to show people stealing it in a film like Smokin’ Aces. Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Ryan Reynolds and others star in a Nevada-set comedy thriller so naffly scripted and garishly directed it should empty cinemas quicker than a cry of “Fire!” The sub-Tarantino dialogue, the flashy cutting, the rave-party music: strictly for the young,
possibly for the unborn.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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