Review: This week's new films
Precious, about a downtrodden Harlem teen, is no light-hearted romp but it is a five star must see. Meanwhile, Mel Gibson stars in the Hollywood remake of classic 1980s TV series Edge of Darkness. Plus, films still showing.
No question about it, Precious: Based On The Novel 'Push' By Sapphire is no light-hearted romp. Directed by Lee Daniels (of Monster's Ball fame), first-time actress Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe plays Claireece "Precious" Jones, an obese, illiterate, sexually abused, black teenager living in Harlem.
Pregnant for the second time by her mostly-absent father, she's physically and emotionally abused by her jealous mother (played brilliantly by the American comedian Mo'Nique). Accepting a place at an alternative school, Precious finds her voice (literally) by learning to read and write and this, at times, overwhelmingly harrowing story becomes invigor-atingly optimistic.
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Don't let the knowledge that Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz co-star in this film put you off (as it inevitably will, unless you are one of her three family members who "enjoyed" Glitter); the acting is outstanding.
Yes the abuse Precious suffers is uncomfortable, but it's not ladled on unnecessarily. Precious starts the film as an invisible mammoth - a huge girl who's so broken and introverted that she's only alive in her fantasies of being famous and therefore loved. Her redemption through her literacy classes is uplifting and at no point unrealistic - there's no pretence at some kind of quick fix resolution. Exceptionally moving and surprisingly accessible.
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EDGE OF DARKNESS (15)
After a seven-year acting hiatus Mel Gibson is back, craggier and more furrow-browed than ever. Based on the 1980s BBC TV series, Edge Of Darkness follows Boston detective Thomas Craven (Gibson) as he tries to uncover the shady Government business dealings that he suspects are behind the murder of his activist daughter.
Danny Huston plays the creepy nuclear plant boss determined to break any suspicious fingers pointing at him, and Ray Winston is the elusive "fixer"- a man hired by anyone looking to scupper an investigation.
This is not your average revenge thriller with guns poking around every corner to mask a lack of depth. In contrast, the film almost goes too far the other way, with several scenes devoted to waffling cryptic chat. You can see the influence of the series' original director Martin Campbell here, trying to wedge in six hours of television time in a two-hour movie slot. Gibson more than makes up for that lack of pace with a believable and charismatic portrayal of a bereaved father while the action sequences are genuinely shocking. With all the negative press Gibson has garnered over the last few years, it's easy to forget what a brilliant actor he is.
A PROPHET (18)
As sharp and dangerous as a razor blade concealed in a convict's cheek, this French prison drama is electrifyingly good cinema.
At two hours 30 minutes, it's probably a bit too long but there's plenty to get your teeth into here as illiterate 19-year-old Malik (Tahar Rahim) gets to grips with the brutal rules of life behind bars.
With no friends or knowledge of how things work, Malik begins his six-year sentence by being put to work by a Corsican gang who want him to kill a prisoner in return for their protection. So begins his schooling and as the years tick by, Malik goes from frightened kitten to alpha male by playing the various gangs off against each other.
As brutal and unsentimental as it gets, A Prophet is stylish, shocking and spellbinding stuff. Rahim is fantastic in the lead. Apparently it's the first time he's ever acted but you wouldn't know and he perfectly judges his performance, showing off the character's innocence and violence while learning the system.
He is aided by director Jacques Audiard, who builds the slow-burning tension with skill while guiding the film from detailed day-in-the-life drama to something far grander. It ends more like an epic gangster thriller than prison drama, but whatever you call it, the film is must-see stuff.
THE BOYS ARE BACK (12A)
This is the charming tale of an immature father's efforts to bring up his sons following the death of his wife. Based on Simon Carr's acclaimed book of the same name, it tells the story of loving dad Joe Warr's attempts to bond with his boys through a "Just Say Yes" policy.
Basically, that means the three of them do whatever they want at their idyllic-house-come-disgusting-pigsty in rural Australia.Out goes the rulebook and fun - often quite dangerous fun - is put at the centre of his relationship with his five-year-old son and his teenage bother. It's heart-warming stuff, but there is a definite element of car crash TV in it. Children soaring through trees on a zip line, riding on the bonnet of a car and jumping from a window ledge into the bathtub is strangely liberating yet excruciatingly painful to watch.
Needless to say things do go wrong, but it does raise some important questions about parenting, and, perhaps, society in general.
Are there too many rules? Have we gone too far down the health and safety route? And is there now a culture of saying "no" before we've even properly thought about the question?
For a true story, there are some unrealistic bits but Clive Owen is excellent as the errant dad ploughing his own path through parenthood despite the disapproving looks of society. Maybe we could all learn something from him - but hopefully not too much.
A family is torn apart by war in this well-meaning melodrama. A Hollywood remake of the much admired Danish flick, the film stars Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal as siblings - one a happily married father of two and brave solider; the other a recently released convict looking to go straight.
When Sam (Maguire) is presumed dead during a tour in Afghanistan, sleepy-eyed charmer Tommy (Gyllenhaal) helps wife Grace (Natalie Portman) through the grieving process while slowly falling for her charms. Of course, Sam isn't dead and when he returns alive but emotionally scarred from his time as a hostage, he discovers the new closeness between Tommy and Grace, and an already uncomfortable situation spins out of control.
Central to the film's success are the strong lead performances from the three good-looking stars. Sure, Maguire tries a little too hard with his powder-keg-ready-to-blow routine but his overly-crazy eyes never detract from the story too much. Even the kids are great in their heartbreaking supporting roles.
It's a shame then that director Jim Sheridan can't quite focus all that power. He conjures up some great scenes - a dinner party after Sam's return is breathlessly tense as he attempts to keep his anger under control - but it all feels too slick and heavy-handed to ever truly get under your skin.