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The Counselor – case dismissed

the-counselor-fassbender

(The trailer, writing fraudulent cheques that its movie has no intention of cashing: http://bit.ly/MBm6WI)

If you’ve always wanted to watch a guy you don’t care about argue with people you have no interest in, about a problem you can’t relate to, in accents impossible to understand, for reasons too dull to mention, against a backdrop too boring to remember, then The Counselor could be the movie for you.

Like a depressing cross between Miami Vice, three-day-old roadkill and the Toyota Prius, this is a movie that accelerates from 0 to 30 over two joyless, tension-free hours before ending up in an extremely tedious ditch. Given the pedigrees of writer Cormac McCarthy and director Ridley Scott the whole experience feels a bit like ordering the Tasting Menu with Wine Pairings only to be served some brackish water and a plate of vanilla-flavoured mud.

The film starts at a low point, from which it relentlessly descends, with a deeply uncomfortable mumblecore sex session between Michael Fassbender, the eponymous Counselor, and Penelope Cruz, his part-time lover. The stirring Mexican music, helpfully scored in time to the A-list bumping and grinding, makes the opening scene feel like consummation as sponsored by Taco Bell. TexSex, if you will. Fassbender plays some kind of lawyer who, we gradually discover, has Serious Cash Flow Issues which have led him to get In Over His Head with some Very Bad People with whom he’s partnered up on a Drug Deal Gone Wrong. It’s one of the world’s very most generic plot lines and fails to add anything to the movie except a familiar, wearying sense of disappointment. Equally grating is the fact that everybody insists on calling Fassbender by his professional title ‘Counselor’ rather than his real name, giving the whole film the slightly surreal quality of a very long, passive-aggressive job interview with the Medellin Cartel.

As if to acknowledge the bottomless well of mediocrity towards which the movie is headed, Scott tries to spice things up by throwing Xavier Bardem and Cameron Diaz into the mix as the limp ‘power couple’ of the piece. Bardem plays some kind of middle man in the drug trade who’s hooked Fassbender up with his deal and has also taken the unusual step of dressing like a human clownfish. His wardrobe leaves an indelible trace on the retina until long after the closing credits have gone. Diaz, meanwhile, plays a kind of Botox-ridden Cruella De Vil with an unhealthy Cheetah obsession. She totters around on unsuitable stilettos with the pouty expression of a spoiled teenager whose daddy just bought her the wrong brand of car. We know she’s bad news because she propositions Catholic priests, treats everyone like they’re a cross between between garbage and breakfast, and has sex with car windscreens. The only way Scott could make it clearer that she has a bubbling black witch’s heart would have been to leave a trail of injured kittens in her wake. In amongst this forest of cliches, Brad Pitt pops up now and then as a kind of shit drug-Yoda, dispensing generic Cartel-related advice so useless that it leads to his own grisly death towards the end of the movie. You have so little invested in his character that his severed head hitting the floor packs the kind of emotional punch more usually associated with a parking ticket.

This is a movie so average that, if you cut it, it would bleed banal. But worse than the crushing tedium, the stuttering performances and the all too predictable finale in which everybody dies and Fassbender takes to crying into his fist a lot, is the terrible, terrible dialogue. It’s as if McCarthy woke up one morning and decided that the world needed a script written in the style of a lobotomised Quentin Tarantino. Any movie that contains the phrases “truth has no temperature” and “you cannot buy anything with grief” deserves to be consigned to the depths of celluloid hell – and The Counselor blazes that dubious trail with a special kind of anti-panache. If this were a defendant it would be sent away for life and, with any justice, somebody would throw away the key.

‘Man of Steel’ – all mouth, no trousers

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(Watch the entire bloated movie in a slightly less annoying 3 minutes; http://bit.ly/14ugFAU)

If you’ve always wondered what it’d feel like to be punched in the face for two hours by a smirking male model wearing bubble-wrapped spandex, whilst the fag end of the US army fires guided missiles at your eardrums and Kevin Costner patronises you about ‘destiny’ and ‘hope’, then Man of Steel could be the movie for you.

It’s far from an accident that the man responsible for this heaving, gibbering, super-heroic train wreck of a film is Zach Snyder, who’s been busy making a career out of eating iconic graphic novels for breakfast and then defecating their tattered remains into unsuspecting multiplexes for lunch (see ‘300’ for a glimpse into his wafer-thin world). But where a certain amount of brazen style previously made some amend for his movies’ singular lack of substance, Man of Steel’s pretty packaging rapidly dissolves away to reveal a bored, cynical, sociopathic child where a soul should be – and then has it start screaming for attention. Rather than an intelligent reinvention of the Superman fable, the movie comes across as a kind of noisy, dead-eyed, live-action homage to Sonic The Hedgehog.

The basic story is pleasingly familiar, of course. Alien gets sent to earth. Alien gets superpowers. Alien makes poor sartorial choices and ends up putting on underpants over tights. Alien falls in love. Alien saves girl (and earth whilst he’s at it). But this obviously wasn’t enough for Snyder who, with his fine track record of turning solid source material into utter dross, decides that what Superman’s been lacking all these years is a load of Big Themes to make everything feel a bit more like King Lear In Space. The beginning of the movie is a case in point. We open on the planet Krypton where superdad Jor-El (an obviously medicated Russell Crowe) helps a whole bunch of floating mirrors deliver his new baby boy, before striding into some intergalactic council chamber like an extraterrestrial Al Gore to inform everyone that their world is facing environmental catastrophe. Before he can bore everybody to death, though, General Zod (a scowling, be-goateed Michael Shannon) attempts a fascist coup, delivers an even duller speech on the importance of knowing your place in society and captures Jor-El, but then loses him when Crowe jumps off a ledge onto his pet Dragonfly-Horse-Dog. The ensuing aerial chase, which makes you feel like you’ve somehow entered the Twilight Zone as imagined by My Little Pony, ends with Crowe dying – but only after he’s sent his son off into space and reassured a faintly bemused Mrs Jor-El that everything will work out fine, all evidence very much to the contrary. Finally, General Zod gets consigned to a giant, unnecessary space prison called The Phantom Zone, and Krypton explodes in a relatively symmetrical fashion, presumably because Snyder’s all out of surreal.

This is utterly demented but at least it’s mildly entertaining – unlike everything that happens next. We’re introduced to Clark Kent, played by Brit du jour Henry Cavill – an actor who probably insures his cheekbones. He sports stubble and the less than credible demeanor of an itinerant drifter, which is a bit like having Paris Hilton play the lead role in The Littlest Hobo, and seems to be intent on taking a tour of the shittiest corners of planet earth. He finds a job in the North Sea as a dangerously incompetent crab fisherman. He saves oilrig workers by taking his top off. He works in roadside cafes, flirts with the local talent and passive-aggressively impales trucks on telegraph poles when he’s annoyed. And he stumbles across out-of-focus arctic tundra in a flimsy t-shirt, like He-Man on a three-week moral holiday. He’s obviously trying to Find Himself at an age when most men have stopped fucking around with their lives and got themselves a proper job, some mates to go drinking with and a girlfriend. All of this is inter-sped with flashbacks to Superman’s childhood where his superpowers are used as a clumsy metaphor for adolescence. His life is made almost unbearable by Kevin Costner, in full ‘if you build it they will come’ mode as his deeply patronising earth father, who won’t let him have any fun with his cool new abilities. All the interminable exposition about ‘finding your way in the world’ makes the moment that Costner gets snatched away by a tornado, the serene but slightly confused look of a Thanksgiving Turkey etched into his saggy face, the high point of the movie.

All you need to know about the final act is that the minute Superman gets his cape and his powers all sorted, everything goes batshit, green screen, CGI-crazy and any kind of lingering human interest, however tenuous, goes completely out of the window. Lois Lane, who might as well have been played by a piece of wet plywood instead of Amy Adams, drops in and out of frenzied action sequence after frenzied action sequence like a Higgs Boson particle. General Zod and his irrelevant black-clad henchmen act like small invincible children who’ve just been given a whole load of fireworks and sent off to play in the sandpit with matches. Crowe persists in getting in everybody’s way, despite the fact that he’s supposed to be dead. The US military flail around like the Keystone Cops, trying and failing to arrest anyone with a cape and God-like powers. And the audience falls into a merciful, popcorn-induced coma. The only moments of levity come from dialogue so clunky it sounds like it’s got rivets in it, ‘Release the World Engine’ being a particularly fine example. The hugely underwhelming finale starts with Superman and Zod punching each other through buildings and ends with the Man of Steel fighting a giant end-of-level boss in the shape of a metallic Octopus. Despite destroying half the city, and presumably the lives of thousands of innocent extras, everything goes back to normal just in time for the distressingly inevitable sequel set-up, with Cavill starting his first day at The Daily Planet by donning a pair of flimsy glasses as his relentlessly lame disguise.

This really is very dull stuff indeed, but it would be almost forgivable if it weren’t so ludicrously, shamelessly, hopelessly derivative. It’s as if Snyder was bored one Sunday afternoon and decided to stick together a mood film made out of all the stomach-churning dialogue from Patch Adams, the misty-eyed score from Lord Of The Rings, the bloated crowd scenes from The Day After Tomorrow, the bottomless pretension of The Tree Of Life, and the gluttonous special effects from The Matrix, Independence Day and every Transformers movie ever made, especially that last one with something about the Moon in the title. On the basis of Man of Steel, Snyder should be sent to The Phantom Zone with Crowe and Costner and be forced to talk about ‘belonging’, ‘free will’ and ‘fatherhood’ for the rest of eternity. And as for the much-hyped sequel where Superman and Batman are due to have some kind of gigantic pissing contest, they should only consider giving the job to Snyder if he promises to stop pandering to his vacuous 13-year-old fan base by making slower, stupider rip-offs of everything Christopher Nolan did with his Dark Knight trilogy. Perhaps flirt with something called originality this time, Zach, because otherwise we’re going to have another smug, noisy, unpleasant summer blockbuster on our hands – with twice the heroes but just a tiny fraction of the super.

‘Prometheus’ – Alien with Daddy issues

(Pretension meets portention in the klaxon-heavy trailer: http://bit.ly/FSRWmQ)

If you’ve always wanted to watch one of Hans Giger’s Aliens disappear so far up its own arse that it can see its own second set of teeth, then you’ll love Prometheus.

Less a film, more one gigantic act of self-sabotage, Ridley Scott takes possibly the most iconic movie monster of the last half century, comprehensively defangs it, gives it the universe’s most boring backstory, feeds it through a bad 3D printer and then marinades it in a vast ocean of pretension. To subtract from the already limited drama he then throws a cast of Lego people into the middle of a barren planet and invites us to witness them die in a series of vastly improbable, tension-free ways. It’s like being forced to watch Brian Sewell read a L Ron Hubbard novel out loud to Jar Jar Binks against a background of sniper fire.

The movie starts with a buff alien – a kind of albino He-Man crossed with a bag of marbles – drinking a pot of bubbling black extraterrestrial Guinness by the banks of a primeval river, then swiftly decomposing into it. For reasons that are never fully explained, he’s sacrificing himself and his DNA to bring life to our planet – something you suspect he wouldn’t have volunteered for if he’d known that the end result would be The Kardashians. This is an ‘Engineer’, a member of a deeply patronising super race who meander the universe in semicircular turd-like spaceships playing God and, you can only assume, vast intergalactic games of ‘horseshoes’. Fast forward a few millennia and depressingly naive archaeologists (Swede-du-jour Naomi Rapace and the slightly irrelevant Logan Marshall-Green) discover a series of cave paintings that suggest the Engineers have been back to visit at various points in our history – probably to lord it over us like the superior pricks they are. They’ve left star maps all over the world describing how to find them and the Weyland corporation want in on the action. Cue much earnest sub-Erik Von Daniken blather about ‘Space Gods’ and ‘finding our origins’. A motley crew made up of mostly dispensable characters – who might as well have big great bloody numbers floating over their heads indicating the order of their eventual demise – are despatched to find out more. Other than Rapace, the only cast members of any significance are Michael Fasbender, playing David the obligatory creepy, asexual android with a nefarious agenda all of his own, and Charlize Theron, cast as Vickers, an Ice Queen so frosty that you keep expecting her to stick to metal.

To cut a painfully long story short, they land on the Engineer’s planet and send an expedition into one of their underground structures, which turns out to be a starship – presumably buried there by an enormous space dog. Then, with monotonous predictability, things start to go Badly Wrong. Holograms of terrified Engineers appear. Constipated-looking Easter Island busts are discovered surrounded by heaps of collectible alien coffee flasks. Giant storms pitch up to give the script much needed dramatic lift. People get trapped. Some moron gets eaten after trying to pet a giant, toothy earthworm. Rapace gives birth to a giant squid by robot Caesarean – natch – after being infected by her husband, who was infected by David, who gives everyone the shivers. An Engineer pops back to life and starts trashing things like he’s at a Napalm Death concert. Guy Pearce appears briefly as an ageing Mr Wheland, reveals himself as Theron’s misogynist father and asks the Engineer for eternal life, before dying with pleasing irony. Following some slightly baffling fights, flights and explosions, Rapace and Fasbender’s head are the last things standing and they zoom off to find more Engineers. Which, based on all the available evidence, feels like a colossal mistake. Finally, there’s a fan-boy money shot where one of the old Aliens has the temerity to burst self-referentially out of one of the new Alien’s rib cage.

What this all adds up to is a monumentally lazy piece of film-making. Scott seems to be under the gigantic illusion that he’s exploring the origin of our Creation myths within a vivid Sci-Fi universe, when it just feels like he’s come up with a shit UFO-themed reality TV show from the 1980’s called ‘Who’s The Daddy?’. The ham-fisted father theme is smeared annoyingly over every available surface – Pearce wants a bigger, better, shinier new father; Theron wants him to be a proper father for once, goddamn it; Fasbender wants a real father – Pinocchio-style; Marshall-Green wants to bore-on about becoming a first-time father; Rapace wants to find everyone’s lovely fluffy galactic father; the (original) Alien wants to break free from the chest cavity of its father; and the Engineers probably collect fathers in the same way that psychopaths collect teeth. Freud might have given a shit but anyone in the audience, who isn’t Oliver Twist, won’t. But beyond the cod psychology, the ridiculous adolescent take on evolution, the plot holes you could drive several medium-sized planets through, and the incessant use of portentous music and shouty dialogue to disguise the fact that nothing’s really happening or making any sense, Scott’s real crime against celluloid is the way Prometheus manages to ruin the rest of the Alien franchise. In the same way that George Lucas flushed Star Wars down the toilet by assuming that anybody gives a monkeys about the Genealogy of wafer-thin, made-up science fiction characters, Scott squanders his credibility by concluding that Scientology  beats acid blood, space marines and an unhealthy obsession with Sigorney Weaver. In retrospect, it would have been vastly more entertaining if he’d just spliced Fasbender and Theron with an Engineer within the first 5 minutes and then pitted the nightmarish result – a combination of Hal 9000, Anna Wintour and Mickey Rourke – against Clint Eastwood and all his guns, preferably somewhere with a decent quantity of Sand, Cacti and Rattlesnakes. Now that would have been a movie.

‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’– like we need a hole in the head

(‘We’ll be talking about Kevin for years’ says the hugely misguided trailer: http://tinyurl.com/8kn8cp9)

If you’ve always wanted to watch a two-hour-long ad for birth control, starring Krusty The Clown and Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ as a couple battling to win the affection of their breathtakingly psychotic son – played by a stroppy young Keanu Revees impersonator – then ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ is the movie for you.

Probably viewed by all involved as an important contribution to the nature/ nurture debate and a stark commentary on the taxonomy of evil, the only thing this movie succeeds in doing is dumbing down a complex issue to the point where it feels like an episode of Sesame Street brought to you by the word ‘dysfunction’, the number ‘666’ and the colour ‘red’. Tilda Swinton, ably supported by a succession of barking mad costume choices, plays Eva, the over-acting mother of the eponymous Kevin who reveals himself to be an unambiguous sociopath from an admirably young age and likes playing favourites with mummy and his low-watt father – brought to shuffling life by a spectacularly anonymous John C. Reilly. The story is told through the eyes of Swinton in a series of time shifts in which we cut back and forth to key moments in Kevin’s development as a child, getting ever more obvious hints that something Very Bad is about to happen. It’s a movie experience not unlike being trapped in a swaying lift with an hysterical middle-class mother, boring on about the virtues of her awful offspring whilst one of the little shits kicks you repeatedly in the shins as he looks around for a knife.

Swinton, normally such a rock in movies where a mesmerising central performance is required to compensate for the lack of any discernable plot, action or point, is undermined at every turn by Director Lynne Ramsay, who appears to have come from a background in Village Pantomime and has her beady eye set on next year’s Continuity Error Oscar. Throughout the movie we see Swinton’s character, Eva, in four varied but increasingly frenzied states of emotional trauma. In no particular order we chop between Hippy Tilda (traipsing around foreign festivals in floaty dresses like a refugee from an oversized fairy party), Ghost Tilda (during which she does much of her child-rearing damage looking like she wouldn’t be out of place turning her hand to sloppy pottery and Patrick Swayze), Gandalf Tilda (where she stalks around looking grey and gaunt with the faintly haunted expression of one who habitually uses giant eagles as public transport) and Pharma Tilda (who consumes prescription drugs by the bucket-load and looks a bit like a special edition Emo Cabbage-Patch Kid). All the Tilda’s swing wildly between cackling manic Joker clone and dead-eyed depressive – and who can blame them when the Director insists on using a truly OCD amount of red in every scene as a deeply obvious metaphor for all the blood and pain that’s about to come calling. From red paint to red tins of tomato, Ramsay leaves not an object unturned in her quest to make the colour a fully paid-up member of the Screen Actors Guild, credited as the fourth lead and given a percentage of the profits. And, speaking of red, we need to talk about Kevin.

Coming across as the unholy product of a grubby threesome between Satan, Bruce Lee and Myra Hindley, he’s portrayed by a succession of blank-faced child actors as a vessel of unadulterated evil. Against the backdrop of Swinton losing her mind, Kevin indulges in the kind of preening, manipulative, cookie-cutter psycho behaviour that wouldn’t look out of place in a Big Brother house. He shouts ‘die’ at computer games, destroys his mother’s pictures, turns his little sister into his servant, burns her face with weed killer, pits his dad against his mother, generally manipulates everyone he comes into contact with and, finally, shoots his dad, sister and a whole load of his school mates dead with a bow and arrow. He’s a veritable one-man ‘Hunger Games’. The problem with Kevin in that he’s such an unambiguous sociopath that there’s no room for any kind of empathy – and it doesn’t take a degree in psychiatry to know from about ten minutes in that he needs to be taken as far away from civilisation as possible – maybe to Swindon – and put in a padded cell on a diet of bread, water and really, really strong anti-psychotics.

Nobody said that a movie about what makes children kill was going to be a fun ride, but this film is stunningly insulting in the banal, simplistic way it tackles its subject – asking Ramsay to give us an intelligent point of view on evil is akin to getting the Telletubbies to pronounce on Afghan Tribal Politics. So rather than talking about Kevin, perhaps we should talk about the way Ramsay rips off every movie ever made involving disturbed children – Carrie, Damien, Rosemary’s Baby, Home Alone 4: Taking Back The House – and then channels them into what can only be described as handwringing, emotional torture porn for the chattering classes. It might be dressed up as Art House cinema, but it comes from the same grubby shelf as Saw 4 and Hostel 3. We also need to talk about why she thinks anyone in their right mind would want to see grown women suffer, empathise with children who pull the legs off live insects, have a fetish for deeply obvious symbolism, like watching Tilda Swinton go four rounds with the worlds most random dressing up box and respond favourably to a good old moral vacuum. And we also need to talk about why any studio on the planet would give Ramsay the chance to inflict this kind of trite nonsense on moviegoers ever again. Let’s not talk about Kevin, let’s talk about Ramsay’s future in a completely different industry.

‘One Day’ – a marriage made in hell

(Enjoy the trailer, deserve the movie; http://bit.ly/lTUtXW)

If Jerry Bruckheimer remade ‘When Harry Met Sally’, set it in East Croydon, cast Taylor Lautner and Kathy Bates as the romantic couple, got rid of all the jokes, replaced the word ‘Met’ in the title with ‘Hated’ and then threw the leading lady under a bus, the result would be a better version of  ‘One Day’;

Based on the incomprehensibly popular book of the same name, this is a movie so relentlessly misanthropic that it somehow manages to make you question both the viability of healthy relationships and whether humanity deserves to survive as a species. Its horribly miscast leading couple are played with an aching lack of charisma by Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess, two extremely boring university students who meet after a tame graduation party, get slightly drunk, end up in bed, and fail to have sex. This singular lack of consummation sets the tone for the rest of the movie, during which we get mercifully fleeting glimpses of their pedestrian lives for one day every year from 1988 until the present. The whole experience comes across like a doomed attempt to get two jaded Pandas to mate by shouting platitudes at them through a loud hailer.

Hathaway is an aspiring novelist without any discernible writing ability who spends the first half of the movie toiling away as a second-rate waitress in the universe’s least authentic Mexican restaurant, then most of the rest as a deeply mediocre teacher. She also devotes a good part of her screen time to a dire relationship with a stand-up comedian called Ian – one of the biggest tools ever to have been brought to life on celluloid. Occasionally Hathaway bumps into the mind-numbingly bland Sturgess, who’s made a career in TV as a kind of cross between Ryan Seacrest, Jeremy Beadle and everyone from Jackass. He turns from extremely annoying everyman into extremely annoying media cliché during the course of the movie, in a performance that somehow makes him look like he’s taking part in a sheepdog trial. Hathaway and Sturgess’s back-and-forth, will-they-won’t-they, on-off, nobody-gives-a-shit relationship is dragged out year after platonic year, each passing episode bookmarked with increasingly deranged graphics – the year popping up alarmingly on toasters, exploding into life on Apple Macs and, in a fitting metaphor for the viewers’ emotional journey, sinking to the bottom of swimming pools. Sturgess takes loads of drugs, shags a handful of inappropriate women, ignores his parents (even when his mum’s dying of cancer), generally behaves like a twat, ends up marrying someone who looks like a horse, has a kid with her and, fittingly, ends up being cheated on. Meanwhile, Hathaway shuffles through life looking like a cross between a bag lady, a wartime evacuee and Elton John when he was into wigs, before somehow managing to publish a very bad book. They end up together, of course, but even then they struggle to look anything other than faintly bored with each other’s company until, mercifully for everyone involved, Hathaway ends it all by cycling straight into a bus. Or that’s the gist of it – you’re paying so little attention by the end of the movie that if an elite squad of ninja pixies riding a brace of flying monkeys appeared, it probably wouldn’t even register.

It’s actually quite special to come across a production from which literally nobody emerges unscathed– all the way from the derisible actors, the unhinged location scouts, whoever chose the cloying music, down to a wardrobe department who seem intent on working with hessian sack. But what turns this movie from a tepid mess into the cinematic equivalent of a crime against humanity is Anne Hathaway, producing a performance that you can only describe as a genre-defining low. Stretching her extraordinarily limited dramatic range to breaking point she comes across like Bambi’s simpler cousin, blinking at people, things and places in a way that suggests the world’s far too difficult to cope with. Her accent, supposedly brashly northern, modulates wildly between transatlantic drawl, a dark place in which Scottish and South African happily co-exist, and the barking noise that seals make. Worst of all, every single wet-blanket second she’s on screen makes you wonder how much longer you’ll have to wait until her untimely demise. There literally seems to be no beginning to Hathaway’s talent, and One Day feels like her push to claim the title of history’s very worst actress. But we can all hold on to the hope, through the damage a movie like this should do to her career, that one day Hathaway will be banned from going within 500 yards of film stock, one day a law will be passed that makes it illegal for her to speak in anything other than her natural accent, and one day she will be shamed into moving to an isolated village in Alaska. With Jim Sturgess. One Day.

‘The Tree Of Life’ – back to Sunday School we go

(Like watching the trailer 62 times in a row: http://bit.ly/icD8Ly)

If you’ve always wondered what would happen if Sarah Palin, Justin Bieber and Captain Planet joined forces to write and direct the world’s longest perfume commercial, then you’re in for a treat;

This is a movie so awesomely wrong-headed, so full of its own preening self-importance that it takes a while for its full, creeping horror to sink in. Like the cynical winner of a competition to polish a turd by throwing money and choral music at it, The Tree Of Life starts out looking like an impressive effort to explore the meaning of existence but ends up making you want to gouge your own eyes out with a plastic ice cream scoop.

It’s a typically humble attempt by Director Terrence Malick to cover the creation of life on earth all the way through to its ultimate destruction, but it’s structured around the trials and tribulations of Brad Pitt – playing a passive-aggressive patriarchal cliché at the head of an apple pie-wielding 1950’s American family. It’s a plot device that’s supposed to tie all the big musings about Life, the Universe and Everything back to the real world, but mostly it makes The Tree Of Life feel like an insane cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and a bi-polar episode of Happy Days.

The movie starts as confusingly as it means to go on with Pitt in the 1960’s mourning the death of his son, quickly skipping ahead to a present day Sean Penn staring listlessly out of big glass windows, then lurching drunkenly back to the 1950’s with the birth of Pitt’s first child. The rest of the film is loosely divided into sections that represent Birth, Life and Death, the action in the real world bookended by long sequences that look like they’ve been harvested from a cursory YouTube search on the words ‘nature’, ‘patterns’ and ‘big’. It’s all set to the kind of classical music favoured by fanatical monks and there’s a bit of earnest musing on the meaning of life – whispered inaudibly by random cast members. This is initially intriguing but as the movie wears on you start to see the rotten wood from the pretty trees – and rapidly reach the conclusion that it all deserves a damn good firebombing.

Malick’s deeply obvious use of imagery quickly pales. Taking inspiration from the world’s most patronizing Hallmark cards he uses a procession of babies, leaves, candles and the odd butterfly to dramatise the fragility of life, and then planets, deserts, trees, waves and – for some reason – door frames to exult in its majesty. After about half an hour of this all you really want to do is to introduce ‘nature’ to a bulldozer, some industrial-strength pesticide and five tons of reinforced concrete. There are some jaw-droppingly misguided My Little Pony-meets-Jurassic Park scenes where cute CGI dinosaurs indulge in acts of impossible kindness before dying on a beach and, dotted throughout, there’s a whole load of painful exposition involving Pitt and his reprobate son. Nothing happens for what feels like days until the final, mildly offensive, half hour in which Sean Penn pops up again to wander around a Welsh beach with his dead mum, his dad, his deceased brother, a whole load of milling extras, and someone who looks suspiciously like Jesus. The overall effect is of being beaten around the head with a leather-bound copy of the Old Testament whilst an angry Jehovah’s Witness shouts the word ‘Rapture’ repeatedly in your left ear.

It’s a special kind of talent that can take the wonder of life and turn it into the world’s most boring church sermon, but Malick manages it with aplomb. Demonstrating an uncanny eye for the obvious, a knack for needless repetition, a gift for banality, a penchant for meaningless gloss and all the earnestness of a very bad teenage poet, The Tree Of Life spends two and a half hours disappearing into a mass of its own pretensions. Mostly it makes you wonder whether this is what being waterboarded with San Pellegrino feels like. As for the three Oscar nominations The Tree Of Life has inexplicably garnered, I’d like to make it clear to the awards committee that for every statue the movie actually wins I’m going to burn down five hectares of irreplaceable tropical rainforest and use the ashes to paint a giant portrait of Terrence Malick in the middle of Times Square, complete with devil horns and the tattoo of a smouldering branch. If you encourage him he’ll only go make a sequel – probably called ‘The Chrysanthemum Of Irrelevance’ – and I’m just not sure the world’s ready for that.

‘The Next Three Days’ – doing hard time

(The lying trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lti0vfCPZns)

If you’ve always wanted to watch Russell Crowe shuffle around Pittsburg looking like a cross between Bubbles from The Wire and a Dunkin’ Donut, then you’ll love The Next Three Days:

Apparently conceived as an annoying, middle-class version of Prison Break, this is a movie so relentlessly dull that its entire hundred and fifty minute running time feels like it’s been shot on beige film stock.

The premise is simple enough. Russell Crowe and his wife – played by an increasingly demented Elizabeth Banks – are the perfect couple. We know they’re in love because they indulge in passive-aggressive banter, have unlikely car sex and spend hideous family time with their almost likeable son – the one person to come through this movie with any dignity. Suddenly, though, their domestic idyll is shattered by a truckload of cops who bust into the house, slap everyone around and drag Crowe’s wife away for murdering her boss with a small red fire extinguisher. Convicted for life on the basis of evidence so implausible that it violates nearly every law of physics (the key to her innocence is a missing coat button) even the kindly family lawyer gives up on any chance of a reprieve. But Crowe isn’t one to take no for an answer and, with both wife and viewer becoming increasingly suicidal, he decides to take matters into his own hands.

On balance, this feels like a mistake. Liam Neeson pops up out of nowhere like some kind of giant criminal leprechaun and lectures Crowe on how to break his wife out of prison, before vanishing for the rest of the movie. Crowe, taking to heart everything that this complete stranger has just told him, spends the next two hours of screen time hatching his plan. This mostly involves waiting for things, looking confused about things, taking photos of things, and running away from things – sometimes all at the same time. But instead of coming across as an everyman struggling to survive in an unfamiliar world, Crowe ends up looking like a shambling, alcoholic stalker. He tries to buy fake passports from a junkie only to get himself beaten to a pulp. He tries to reassure his wife but simply succeeds in pushing her over the edge. He makes a skeleton key for a prison lock but manages to break it off in the door. And, almost incredibly, he buys plane tickets for a new life in Venezuela but gives the game away by leaving them lying around his Dad’s house.

In the end, of course, Crowe manages to get his wife out of prison – but only through a tension-free plot device involving medical records and an ambulance. The interminable chase that follows feels like it was filmed underwater and by the time you realize that they’ve somehow outfoxed the law and are enjoying life in a clichéd version of South America, you’re well past struggling to care.

This is not a movie that anyone would want on their CV. The plot’s awful, the dialogue’s stilted, everyone’s miscast, and at two and a half hours long it’s like being suffocated by a very boring pillow. But no review of The Next Three Days would be complete without special mention of the man who made this car-crash possible, Director Paul Haggis. So thank you, Paul, for taking an idea full of potential and making it feel like a prison sentence; for helping the audience care more about Crowe’s Toyota Prius than the man himself; for throwing Don Quixote quotes around in an attempt to sound clever; for failing to explain the difference between method-acting and method-eating to your star; and for your new-found ability to turn everything you touch from solid gold into utter dross.

Don’t go changing.

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