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Review: This week's new films

PUBLISHED: 14:06 21 January 2010 | UPDATED: 07:37 02 July 2010

The Boys Are Back is the charming tale of an immature father's efforts to bring up his sons following the death of his wife, starring Clive Owen. Plus: Brothers, A Prophet, Crude, Ninja Assassin.

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.

BROTHERS (15)

***

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.

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's 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.

CRUDE (PG)

****

A gripping documentary charting the David vs Goliath battle of local Ecuadorians against an American oil firm.

Yes, it's yet another crusading movie with a green slant but, after spending three years getting know the local tribes and their lawyers, director Joe Berlinger manages to dig deeper than simple, "what an outrage" film-making.

He gets an intimate view of the plaintiff's struggle as they wade through a seemingly endless legal battle over what they claim to be the polluting ways of big business that threaten their way of life.

It's not hard to see where Berlinger's sympathies lie. He couldn't paint oil giant Texaco (now part of Chevron) as bigger villains if he gave them all a top hat, black cloak and sinister theme tune. The locals' stories are heart-breaking but what fascinates is the hidden battle for media attention. The team pushes to get its story in magazines and enlists star campaigners Sting and wife Trudie Styler to their cause, even instructing Trudie to say "Texaco" more when discussing the subject with reporters.

Add in Berlinger's ability to turn the slow legal process into a nail-biting thriller (although no decision has been made) and you've got a captivating and inspiring call to arms.

NINJA ASSASSIN (18)

**

Are there two greater words in the action movie lexicon than ninja and assassin? Slap 'em together and you've got one hell of a fight film. Right?

Well, not quite. Directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and produced by the Wachowski brothers (of The Matrix fame), Ninja Assassin has all the requisite blood-soaked set pieces but at its heart, this is a disappointingly lacklustre effort - dragged down from some sporadic moments of brilliance by a ludicrous story and dialogue that has to rank among the worst of all time. Even for an action film.

To save yourself from the cringeworthy moments, it's best to tune out as much of the plot as possible but, for the record, the story involves one of the world's most deadly assassins (South Korean music star Rain) taking revenge on the evil clan that trained him, while saving the life of curious Interpol agent Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris, saddled with all of the script's worst lines).

Perhaps it wouldn't hurt so much if the action wasn't quite so well handled - the opening scene in particular is a startling explosion of well orchestrated mayhem as heads and limbs fly in all directions, washed down by buckets of computer generated blood splatter. It's incredible, no holds barred stuff but when the fists aren't flying, the films grinds to a halt.

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