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Matt Damon in Neil Blomkamp's Elysium (2013).

With this year’s fest­iv­al now a rap­idly dimin­ish­ing memory – and my recov­ery from that event (plus anoth­er magazine pub­lished, some “live” pod­cast record­ings, a few Q&A’s, some dir­ect­or inter­views and a Big Screen Symposium) almost com­plete – I return to the com­mer­cial cinema and what do I find? Twenty-three new films have been released since my last set of reviews. Twenty-three! I only turned my back for a second. So, bear with me while I try and do some catch­ing up. Some of these films deserve more space than they are going to get here (and some of them don’t) but you can­’t have everything, am I right?

Elysium poster[pullquote]R‑rated these days appears to mean lots of unne­ces­sary curs­ing and com­ic male nudity.[/pullquote]Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was a sur­prise smash-hit in 2009 and his follow-up, Elysium, is what we call ‘eagerly awaited’. Watching it I was reminded of the great strengths of that first film: a vividly cre­ated future soci­ety, dys­func­tion­al yet plaus­ible; a great plot setup with a genu­ine dilemma for the cent­ral char­ac­ter. Then I remembered the third act of District 9 – one long fight/chase/fight. And so it proves with Elysium. Wasted poten­tial as – like so many films this year – the film is resolved by who can punch harder rather than who can think bet­ter. I have lots of oth­er prob­lems with it but that’s the main one.

Stoker posterStoker, Park Chan-wook’s first fea­ture in English, looks a treat. There’s not a hair out of place and the col­ours are rav­ish­ing but it’s cold. The char­ac­ters are cold and the film is cold. The craft is easy to admire and Director Park will make bet­ter films than this (again) but I felt dis­en­gaged from all the char­ac­ters and their goth­ic hor­ror concerns.

We're the Millers posterIn We’re the Millers and The Heat, Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock con­tin­ue to invest­ig­ate how much dig­nity they can sac­ri­fice as they fight for the title of America’s favour­ite female box office star. Aniston wins – or rather loses – play­ing a down-on-her-luck strip­per mas­quer­ad­ing as Jason Sudeikis’s wife as they trans­port an RV full of marijuana across the Mexican bor­der. Sudeikis – an often unap­peal­ing pres­ence but only mostly annoy­ing here – has put togeth­er a pre­tend fam­ily (also includ­ing teen run­away Emma Roberts and geeky neigh­bour Will Poulter) to throw the bor­der guards off the scent. That’s the least of their wor­ries, how­ever, as they are pur­sued across New Mexico by some dis­gruntled Latino ste­reo­types. For once the semi-improvised per­form­ances are laid over a semb­lance of a plot but to no great effect. R‑rated these days appears to mean lots of unne­ces­sary curs­ing and com­ic male nudity.

The Heat posterIn The Heat, Bullock gives us a ver­sion of her stand­ard tight-ass career woman learn­ing to live a little, this time with the help of Bridesmaids’ break-out star Melissa McCarthy as her down-to-earth Boston detect­ive part­ner. As she proved in Identity Thief, McCarthy does a nice line in pathos but you have to get past an enorm­ous amount of aim­less shriek­ing to get there. Bullock can do this sort of thing in her sleep and I think she did.

Giselle posterTheatre, bal­let and opera have become a staple in our art-houses over the last few years as high cul­ture has found a home where live sport and rock con­certs (the “altern­at­ive con­tent” that was pre­dicted to dom­in­ate the new digit­al envir­on­ment) have failed. While the Met Opera and National Theatre have estab­lished inter­na­tion­al brands and repu­ta­tions to lead them, Toa Fraser’s Giselle has some­thing else – it works as cinema. Beautifully shot by ace Leon Narbey and his team of ded­ic­ated cine­ma­to­graph­ers – like Scorsese’s Rolling Stones film Shine a Light, Narbey insisted that every cam­era oper­at­or be a first-rate shoot­er in his own right – Giselle show­cases the sub­lime per­form­ances of prin­cipals Gillian Murphy and Qi Huan as well as Kendall Smith’s beau­ti­ful lighting.

Fraser leaves the aud­it­or­i­um occa­sion­ally – to New York, Shanghai and the Wellington rehears­al room – gently hint­ing at the con­nec­tions between per­former and char­ac­ter that are usu­ally the prerog­at­ive of our imaginations.

Private Peaceful posterAlmost gone from loc­al cinemas – I’m that far behind – is Private Peaceful, an adapt­a­tion of anoth­er of Michael (War Horse) Morpurgo’s World War One stor­ies. Two broth­ers grow up by grace and favour of the loc­al Devonshire lord of the man­or (played with cus­tom­ary gusto and much mous­tache twirl­ing by Richard Griffiths in his final screen role). The broth­ers fall for the same girl (Alexandra Roach) and fall out as a res­ult. Tommo Peaceful (George MacKay), the young­er, enlists for the war and older bro Charlie (Jack O’Connell) feels com­pelled to fol­low and look after him, leav­ing his young fam­ily and new bride in the pro­cess. The book was aimed at older chil­dren and the film isn’t much more soph­ist­ic­ated than that and suf­fers from budget restric­tions that make the killing fields of France rather less dev­ast­at­ing than they might have been.

Reality posterIf dir­ect­or Matteo Garrone’s name con­jures up memor­ies for you of the grip­ping neo-realist Neapolitan crime drama Gomorrah you should be advised that his vis­ion has taken a dif­fer­ent turn with his new(er) film Reality. Still set in Naples, the new pic­ture is a fable wherein a pop­u­lar fish­mon­ger (Aniello Arena) dreams of great­er fame via the real­ity show Big Brother and loses his mind on the jour­ney. Garrone’s eye for unusu­al faces remains intact as well as his sense of archi­tec­tur­al spaces but the film’s con­clu­sion is as inev­it­able as it is frustrating.

Now You See Me posterFinally, in this instal­ment, Now You See Me has been described by anoth­er review­er as “Inception goes to Vegas”, a descrip­tion that could­n’t have put me off more if it tried. Sure enough, the puzzle is more import­ant than the char­ac­ters as a group of street illu­sion­ists (Jesse Eisenberg is the mas­ter of mis­dir­ec­tion, Woody Harrelson the ‘men­tal­ist’, Isla Fisher is an escapo­lo­gist and Dave Franco, a spoon-bender) are brought togeth­er by a mys­ter­i­ous and anonym­ous bene­fact­or who bank­rolls a big-time stage show for them so that they can Robin Hood the banks and insur­ance com­pan­ies who ripped us all off dur­ing the Global Financial Crisis and Hurricane Katrina.

So far, so zeit­geisty. None of it makes a lick of sense (except per­haps math­em­at­ic­ally) and dir­ect­or Louis Leterrier’s con­stantly spin­ning cam­era served only to make this view­er naus­eous. How he got anoth­er gig after Clash of the Titans is a mys­tery but it does mean that there is hope for us all, no mat­ter how incom­pet­ent we are.