Long day’s journey into dysfunction

For 20 years intelligent Americans have gone to one television programme, and one only, for depth, scope and artistic consistency: The Simpsons. No other show tells it like it is. No other show rivals its depiction of small-town family life as a cauldron of vanity, hope, aspiration, failure and idiocy: a sort of long day’s journey into dysfunction. As a view of life it is despairing but hilarious, reductive yet Homeric.

That must be why the main character has his name, and why not even the opening-out inevitable in a filmed sitcom can ruin The Simpsons Movie. Homer and family take a trip to Alaska. A giant transparent dome is placed over Springfield, in a sci-fi high-five that seems to say, “hey, the money’s up here on the screen”. And in the most epic leap of all, Bart has a nude scene, skateboarding demigod- like down the street with every passing object providing an accidental fig leaf until – well, the best jokes must be left virgin for the viewer.

The Simpsons are old enough now to break the frame. The film makes it clear, even radiant, that Homer himself is more than a small-town doofus with a voice like Denis Healey strained through a foghorn. (Healey, for non-Brits, was a Labour politician with mad eyebrows and a weird dinky-locuted baritone.) Homer is the ultimate “us”. We all identify with his serial faddism and freaks of purpose, manifested here in his adoption of a pet pig. Homer’s babying need to nickname the creature a “spider pig” and walk it on the ceiling, plus other surrogate-parenting diversions, is followed by the guileless atrocity of emptying the – what shall we call it, porkaloo? – into a lake that suffers immediate, calamitous pollution.

Twenty-eyed squirrels emerge, the lake seethes, Springfield is doomed (and later domed). The family can only flee. The town can only wait for them to come back. For though the mad destroy us, they are also the only ones gifted enough to save us.

Wit, insight, absurdity, resonance: what more do you want from a summer film? The Simpsons Movie also has as US president the man I tipped for the job 15 years ago in my book True Myths (Bloomsbury and Amazon), one Arnold Schwarzenegger. It has, too, the funniest ever scene involving a man and a giant dinner fork. It has, in fact, pretty much everything: go see.

Not all stateside cinema is celebration-worthy. We are a dangerous race, we critics. We live on planet Earth like ordinary people, hiding in plain sight. We eat breakfast, catch trains, work, meet, play and sleep. Yet at moments, faced with a brainless blockbuster, we can growl, grow 12ft tall and become death-dealing bio-metallic androids. We are the Thoughtformers.

Halfway through Transformers I thought I heard telltale noises among fellow critics: the rasping of metal on metal, the hostile, preludial grind, whir and creak. But no. I had forgotten I was at a public preview – where Thoughtformers sometimes go to reinforce incognitos – and the noise was two dozen kids unhasping Coke tins and rending sweet packets. They were giving the important public verdict, their refreshment-fuelled attention, to a summer spectacular that no critic-droid was going to spoil for them.

Transformers is better rubbish than most: TV-and-toyshop-based trash that has been to the recycling centre. It looks new and sparkling, even though it goes on for 143 minutes. Its army of NBEs (non-biological extraterrestrials) moves across America biffing baddies. This being a Spielberg-produced film, events are witnessed and influenced by a suburban kid, played by the engaging Shia LaBeouf, a sort of young Dustin Hoffman with extra angles.

The big autobots (so named) are cars until they extend vertically and become megaliths of gurning metal. The little autobot is a radio when not being a Gremlins-style ball of malice. He/she/it does a funny “I’m not here” walk – knees bent and buckled, steel hand hiding face – across an open airfield after escaping an aircraft. The most scarily synthetic character, though, may be Jon Voight’s defence secretary, his plasticated features and no-known-substance grey hair suggesting an exhumed Action Man who has made a quick trip to the embalmer’s shop.

The movie climaxes with a long – too long – battle on city streets. The maelstrom of metamorphic metallicism swaps mirth for mayhem. Best to cherish the earlier, cleverer scene in which the big autobots hide, or try to, in the compact suburban garden of LaBeouf’s parents, like garden gnomes who have drunk a metal-forming potion and grown to chimney height.

Watching Daratt after these Hollywood films is like jumping from a moving train. Caught by terra firma, we come to a near-bone-breaking halt. Our thoughts and adrenaline rush on ahead; we have to call out to them to return. This film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who made the haunting Abouna, moves so slowly that it makes watching paint dry seem a spectator sport.

Yet there is a burning eventfulness under the surface. A 20-year-old man (Ali Bacha Barkaï) is sent by his blind grandfather to murder the killer of the boy’s father. In a reality-based Chad, those seeking justice after the nation’s civil war – a war concluded by an amnesty that swept away accountability – must do their own avenging. The guilty man (Youssuf Djaoro) is tracked down to a bakery in the capital, N’djamena. Voiceless after a throat-cutting, his belated peaceability is too late for the hero. Friendship is feigned, infiltration is effected. The reckoning will surely come, although the film’s suspense lies, Hamlet-like, in wondering what drop of forgiveness might exist in this wasteland for hope and humanity. The pace is like sand shifting in a near-windless Sahara, but the spell quietly grows.

Sherrybaby is a problem pic with tears, but better than its initial resemblance to a theme-of-the-day teledrama suggests. Laurie Collyer wrote and directed the portrait of a drug-scarred parolee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) trying to reclaim a daughter and a life. The emotion-battered singleton copes, in her first days out of jail, with a brother and sister-in-law who have possessively brainwashed her daughter (whom they are fostering), a father (Timothy Bottoms) who re-ignites memories of childhood abuse, and vindictive lawfolk determined to catch her when she falls and bundle her back to prison.

Collyer audits the conflicting horrors of rehabilitation. One moment the heroine will risk any humiliation to regain her child, including a heartrending impromptu of a cappella crooning at a birthday party. (Every social embarrassment you ever felt is distilled here.) The next she will jeopardise anything, including the restoration of motherhood, to regain her lost drug comforts. As the wasted but wilful waif, Gyllenhaal is superb. Sexy and knowing it, she can always turn a new trick, although less sure what effect – often destructive – each trick will have on her larger campaign to conjure a new life.

I Have Never Forgotten You: the Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal is an in-house hagiography. It was made by Moriah Films, the documentary arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. As a life story, it enthrals even so. A concentration camp survivor becomes the world’s leading Nazi hunter, pitilessly compassionate in his quest to honour the slain by shining the torch of justice into corners of cruelty that would remain dark without him.

Wiesenthal refused to close the ledger. He even stopped Germany doing so, raising a clamour when the country tried to impose a statute of limitations on war crimes. The sustained fury of his campaign is wonderful. So is the quiet relish of his decision to hold his 90th birthday party in Hitler’s favourite Vienna hotel. A lavish kosher dinner in a one-time heartland of the Third Reich: a symbolic ablution of the final solution.

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