There is nothing wrong with a gimcrack script that a genius director cannot mend. Since Monsters (), a sci-fi/horror film about giant extraterrestrial polyps terrorising North America in the aftermath of a space probe’s crash, has the same writer and director, my theory is this. First-time British feature-maker Gareth Edwards (also cinematographer and effects designer) wrote a screenplay, deliberately corny at times, even clunky-allegorical with its US-built “Wall” to keep out aliens – doublespeak for illegal Mexican immigrants and space octopuses – in order to ravish us more fully, more brutally, more brilliantly with his mise-en-scène and Camus-worthy mastery of foreboding.
From the moment the cynical young American photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) grabs the broken-wristed blonde (Whitney Able), his boss’s daughter, from a Mexico City hospital to hike her to the coast for a ferry home, this film is a lollapalooza. The giant octopuses have begun their rampage season. “This happens every year, we take our chances,” yawns a taxi driver. But not even he wants to drive north to the Infected Zone buffering Mexico and the US. For that you need gas masks, armoured cars, possibly space-monster repellent. If the couple don’t catch the last ferry, though, that is where they will be headed.
Cue missed ferry. Cue skies darkening and growling. Cue shots that rhyme, for menace, one wavy shape (palm branches) with another (tentacles). Cue the spooky bewilderment of what seems a plane’s fin moving above a river’s surface. It is – but much more! Cue the raggedy romance, a comfort of the damned, growing between the hard-bitten hero and the blonde, who isn’t a heart-stopper but knows how to dress down for a fright and flight movie.
This film is so edgy it hardly needs its monsters. (But don’t worry, it gets them.) The director doubles our heart rate with every mere sound. The peely linen rasp of someone sitting up in bed merges with the raspy roar of a fighter jet starting the next scene. A climactic sequence is set in an ominously derelict filling station, selling high-octane apocalypse. But even the apocalypse, when it arrives, is a surprise. Have you ever seen a mating of aurorae borealis? Have you seen mortal danger put on the mother of light shows? And then – wham, bang, panic, darkness, scuffle – are we OK? Are we not OK? What’s happening out there ... ?
If Monsters is a masterpiece of high-amp anxiety, Of Gods and Men (), no less masterly, is the screen equivalent of plainchant. It is not often we are swept up, even exalted, by earnest simplicity. Director Xavier Beauvois, who won the runner-up Special Jury Prize at Cannes with this tale of French monks in an African monastery menaced and finally moved in on by Muslim terrorists, never varies the ascetic rhythm and humane harmony of his drama. The events speak louder – or chant louder – than the presentation.
Visually, the film could have been painted by Vermeer. Greys, pale ochres, luminous pastels fill out frames where the faces, essaying faith even in crisis, are vehicles for the most subtly fleeting, even subcutaneous emotions.
What country are we in? Not specified, though the source incident happened in Algeria in the 1990s. What monastery are we in? A Cistercian one, enclosed in a grim and necessary compound. “They’ve killed the Croatians,” says someone after a cutaway scene in a desert building site: ambush and cut throats. Fear grows like a miasma, confronted by the Brother Superior (Lambert Wilson) whose lean, bespectacled face glitters in the knowledge that his godly test has arrived.
He refuses an army offer of protection. The old doctor-in-holy-orders (Michael Lonsdale) refuses to turn away friend or enemy. The villagers want a refuge, too, perhaps with the monks: “We are the birds, you are the branch.” Like a master musician knowing a passage shouldn’t be played faster just because it is louder, Beauvois makes the moment of invasion itself as measured, deliberate and implacable as the lead-up.
Several of the monks are allowed their moments of religious doubt. Is this an anti-God film? Someone quotes Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and thoroughly as when they do it from religious conviction.” Militant Islam is the film’s manifest villain. But the faith of the Christians, too, is under scrutiny: this ordeal may have brought them to the ceremony of Critical Mass. The music played on a scratchy gramophone at the “last supper” as they await their fates is not Bach but the lush strains of Swan Lake: inapposite, yet somehow totally right. Somehow, too, the film’s ending, brutal and medium-short, is anointed with a continuing sense of faith. If not in gods, then in men, in humanity’s eternal courage in facing, or outfacing, temporal tragedy.
Miral () couldn’t be more of a contrast. A nosedive into the preachy-platitudinous. We are in 1947 establishing a Jewish state with director Julian Schnabel. Every character wears a virtual identity badge. Either that or they bandy bad accents (Vanessa Redgrave as an American), bumper-sticker dialogue (“Without unity we can achieve nothing”) or cruddy ageing make-up, like the truth-based orphanage founder Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), who starts young and ends up tottering around in specs and powdered hair like something from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
The title heroine, beginning as a little Arab-Israeli girl, becomes a crusading piece of dark-eyed crumpet played by Freida Pinto. This actress is as expressive as the beauties one finds with staples through them in the centre of magazines. Miral teaches at a refugee camp, falls in love with an activist and finds herself torn “between the fight for the future of her people“, as the director puts it in the press blurb, “and Mama Hind’s belief that education is the road to peace”.
That’ll pack them in at the Cineworld Giggleswick. I kept wondering how this pie-eyed tract, which spends two hours proclaiming the obvious about peace, entente and togetherness, could be made any more windily trite. I couldn’t think of anything. Unless maybe Schnabel stuffed in some scenes from Otto Preminger’s Exodus. On second thoughts, that might improve it.
Pass swiftly by. Go to the cinema showing Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s Easier with Practice (). A cruel, clever teaser. A “Catcher in the Wry” surprising its hero and us with an outrageous final plot irony, concluding the tale of a boy (Brian Geraghty), a telephone sex habit (with an unidentified but mysteriously persistent girl) and a brother-and-buddies support system vainly urging him to kick his dependency. He’ll never grow up; he’ll go blind; he’ll spend his nights cuddled up with mobile phones in dormer vans. It is a cool, funny, mischievous movie, with a stand-out, even break-out, performance from Geraghty, late of raw-rookie duty in The Hurt Locker.
Children get to choose between Megamind (), eyeball-opening 3D digimation with eyelid-closing plot (super-evil fights super-good again) and the weird Finnish charmer Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale () . Little boy; mountain with secret; and in one scene 100 naked Santa Clauses running around like panicked reindeer. They order these Yuletides differently in Lapland.