Cinema review: Mea Maxima Culpa, This is 40, Side by Side and more

So. Farewell, Pope. You had eight years to swing an unbeliever – this unbeliever – around to your way of thinking, or even to sympathise with your way of thinking. And you blew it. Since the turn of the millennium, with child abuse scandals, continuing myopia about contraception (even among Aids-conscious African denizens of the Vatican) and unhelpful gossip about your own early history as Joseph “Hitler Youth” Ratzinger, thousands, going on millions, of minds must have decided they were sick to death of Catholicism and its works.

Alex Gibney makes documentaries about the world, the flesh and the devil. He addressed the first two in previous films. His Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side gave us world conflict (eastern jihad versus western black ops). Enron portrayed the prelude to world money meltdown. Client 9 showed how the flesh toppled an American politician. Now in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God comes the devil. Or so he would surely be identified by the film’s portrayed community, the Catholic Church, if they themselves were not the sinners at the judgment gate.

Responsibility for the child abuse scandal, Gibney contests, goes all the way to the Vatican and, yes, the outgoing Pope. This film, brilliantly structured, opens out from a prologue examining one man and one institution – a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, church school for the deaf whose now grown-up victims wage a campaign of testimony against the school’s former child-molesting Father – to a sweeping, even stunning, even stupefying survey of the Church’s negligence and sometimes (no other word) connivance.

For more than 10 years Pope Benedict, then a cardinal heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, supervised the Vatican’s child abuse “account” – and failed to bring anyone to account. John Paul II himself turned two blind eyes to a notorious child-molesting Father who was also a Church fundraiser. While the scroll of seduction and corruption alone is appalling enough – respect-for-the-cloth exploited to silence boys encouraged to take off their own “cloths”, the veil of the confessional lent a seedy eroticism (one priest accused of trying to coax graphic descriptions of sexual peccadillo) – Gibney’s film reserves its last ammunition for the Catholic Church’s jealously guarded right to diplomatic immunity. This right has existed from the time the Vatican was granted nationality status by – pick an honourable name – Benito Mussolini. (And we thought we had already audited his atrocities.) This is a tremendous documentary: at once cool and scalding, outraged and meticulous; a must-see for everyone, both inside and outside the “House of God”.

This is 40
? No, this is 140 – minutes – or as close as dammit, as duration stretches to near-herniation point in Judd Knocked Up Apatow’s new comedy about love, marriage and midlife crisis. “Are we in real time?” I began to wonder as the hours/days expand in the preparation for married Debbie’s (Leslie Mann, aka Mrs Apatow) 40th birthday. She and husband Pete (Paul Rudd) have two fractious daughters (played by the Apatows’ own), two dysfunctional fathers-in-law (sponger Albert Brooks, estranged, standoffish John Lithgow), not to mention – but oh heck, everything is mentioned here. A pet doesn’t get the sneezes without a 10-minute yelling match or logorrheic inquest. Ask not for whom other crises toll: they toll for Debbie (surprise pregnancy), Pete (imploding career), or the school mum who goes ballistic over a perceived Pete slight to her son.

I think I laughed once, when a healthy eating fad among the family prompts the line, “The dressing takes away the natural taste of the lettuce.” Apatow used to be that funny all the time. Here it’s half an hour between comic courses, as we take time to discuss or digest sex, sibling rivalry, love, divorce, despair, menopause and the death of the soul. Imagine the funny bits left out of Long Day’s Journey Into Night: that’s this movie.

Side by Side
is a cine-anorak’s guide to changing screen technology. Chris Kenneally’s documentary is fascinating enough to please non-nerds too. Keanu Reeves, wearing his Homo Sapiens cap, as distinct from his Anthropithecus Action-hokum, mediates a symposium about the changeover from celluloid to digital film. Sounds dry? Quite the opposite. It’s sweet and sparkling, as glassfuls of thought are provided by James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh and other champagne cinematic cerebra.

Danny Boyle is eloquent about Slumdog Millionaire, the first digitally shot feature to win a Best Picture Oscar. Lars von Trier wags his tail as the Danish Dogma founder who started the upscale DV feature trend. One or two impassioned veterans speak up for last-ditch Luddism: “I’m not going to trade my oil paints for a set of crayons.” But the sense of a set of Platonic dialogues between pals becomes very winning. “Are you done with film?” Reeves teasingly asks David Lynch, who looks more than ever like some transmigrated, perpendicular-haired James Stewart. “Don’t hold me to it, Keanu ... ” answers the mage of Mulholland Drive. And maybe film won’t ever fully vanish. Maybe – like twin peaks – analogue and digital will continue “side by side”, the best of both worlds in eternal neighbourly eminence.

Old franchise heroes never die. They put on makeup, gain a grown-up child and use him/her as the excuse for a senior-citizen sequel. In A Good Day to Die Hard Bruce Willis is John McClane again, a little creakier, a little greyer around the makeup department’s hair-stipple on his temples, jetting into Moscow to see his son, whom he discovers to be a CIA agent trying to bring in a top defector. (What century are we in? Is this still the cold war?)

The opening car chase lasts about two days. Then it is wham, bang, thank you, visual effects man. Everything blows up, drops from a high building or bursts into flames. Sometimes Willis stands about with a cocked eyebrow delivering one-liners (“Some fucking vacation”). It’s as predictable as Christmas and, if you are in the mood, as enjoyable. This Russia never existed in real life, even in Soviet times. But nor did an American cop capable of righting the wrongs of the world every time he strips to his undervest.

Beautiful Creatures
is terrible twaddle. Jeremy Irons leads the British luvvies unaccountably cast as a Deep South dynasty of sorcerers – Emma Thompson and Eileen Atkins among his kin – in a tale of humans versus witches, or as writer-director Richard LaGravenese, adapting the no doubt franchise-bound kidult bestseller, terms them, “Casters”. A human cannot love or be loved by a Caster, goes the lore; but handsome young hero Alden Ehrenreich says Pollux to that and falls for beautiful Alice Englert. The story drifts on into terminal whimsy, pulling all the Twilight organ stops. But the only thing you come out humming is Philippe Rousselot’s handsome cinematography.

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