Film reviews: Abel | Leap Year | 127 Hours | Mammoth

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Our film critic looks at the best and worst of this week's new releases, including Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, which stars James Franco:

Abel (15)***

Directed by: Diego Luna

Starring: Christopher Ruz-Esparza, Geraldine Alejandra, Karina Gidi

Mexican actor Diego Luna makes a confident directorial debut with this slender but tender tale of a young boy who assumes the identity of his absent father after a spell in hospital following a prolonged refusal to speak. Scared he'll retreat once more into his mute shell, his devoted mother (Geraldine Alejandra) plays along and orders his siblings to indulge his behaviour, a course of action that sees little Abel (Christopher Ruz-Esparza) telling off his elder sister, teaching his younger brother to be a man and even trying to dominate his mum. When his real father returns, however, things get really complicated as Abel's new role undermines his dad's perceived patrician rights as the head of the family. Telling the story with admirable simplicity, Luna teases out the family secrets that hint at the real reasons underlying Abel's condition, while using the set-up to playfully mock the infantilised machismo rife in a society held together by hard-working women. Like a lot of actors who try their hand at directing, Luna's instincts for performance serve him better than his narrative abilities, but it remains an engaging enough piece of whimsy.

Leap Year (18) **

Directed by: Michael Rowe

Starring: Monica Del Carmen, Armando Hernandez, Gustavo Sanchez Parra

In Sex is Comedy, Catherine Breillat's 2003 film about film-making, one of the characters makes the surprisingly astute observation that arthouse cinema frequently revels in punishing female protagonists in degrading ways because actresses are more willing than actors to fully submit to a director's vision. Watching Leap Year, Michael Rowe's harrowing Cannes winner (it picked up the Camera D'Or earlier this year), it's hard to disagree. Revolving around an isolated woman dealing with a traumatic event connected to an impending "leap year" anniversary, the film literalises the peculiar sadomasochistic bond that can exist between actress and director by having Monica Del Carmen's character, Laura, subject herself to increasingly violent and humiliating sexual acts as a way of working through her issues. That Laura is shown to be in control at all times is the slight twist that Rowe perhaps imagines makes his explicitly rendered, albeit sensitively handled, film a valid exploration of loneliness and isolation. But Del Carman's brave and intense performance aside, the film doesn't do enough to dispel the notion that this is merely one more example of a director making a name for themselves with yet another tedious slice of pseudo-arthouse exploitation.

127 Hours (15) ****

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Starring: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara

Refusing to rest on his laurels and fall into the trap of making awards-baiting prestige pictures, Danny Boyle follows up his unlikely Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire with a gnarly if oddball survival movie. Based on the true story of Aron Ralston, an extreme sports fanatic who had to hack off his own arm after it became trapped under a boulder while he explored a canyon in Utah, 127 Hours may take a more vibrant and exuberant approach to its "what-would-you-do?" set-up than fans of recent stripped-down, rat-in-a-trap thrillers such as Buried and the under-seen Frozen may be expecting, but Boyle makes that work to his advantage. Ditto the titular plot-spoiler, which, far from ruining the tension of the situation, shows just how skilled a storyteller Boyle has become: we know Aron survived, but that doesn't prevent his remarkable tale being an intense and compelling one. Played by James Franco, Aron is presented as a self-reliant guy, a loner who likes to challenge himself, often at the expense of personal relationships with girlfriends, with colleagues and with his family.

He's not selfish or antisocial, exactly, he just doesn't seem to understand that there are people in his life who love him and appreciate him and would perhaps like to be in his life more. It's that realisation that he has to confront when he discovers all the survival skills he's acquired over the years are rendered irrelevant by a large rock and a very hard place. Boyle and his crew deploy a dazzling array of tricks to plug us into the desperation of Aron's situation, particularly his rapidly depleting water supply, and Franco does a sound job of clueing us into Aron's fracturing mental state as the days wear on and the only option facing him becomes ever more apparent. The actual limb severing is predictably grisly, and Boyle doesn't hold back in letting us see and hear just what is involved (let's just say bones are broken, nerves are severed, veins are cut and skin is ripped off – all with the aid of a very blunt camping knife). What's surprising about the film, though, is just how euphoric it ends up being. It is, like a lot of Boyle's work, weirdly life affirming, capturing without sentimentality what it means to get a second chance to connect with what's important in life.

Mammoth (15)**

Directed by: Lukas Moodysson

Starring: Michelle Williams, Gael Garcia Bernal, Marife Necesito, Natthamonkarn Srinikornchot

Having spent a decade purposefully alienating audiences, Swedish writer/director Lukas Moodysson claws his way back into the mainstream with this condescending, glossy slice of We Are The World-style film-making. Designed to show in the most simplistic way possible that Western privilege has implications for those in the Third World, Mammoth deploys the same deterministic plotting favoured by the liberal hand-wringing likes of Crash and Babel to tell the overly familiar story of a beautiful and wealthy young family whose spiritual growth is aided via contact with the saintly dispossessed. Michelle Williams has the thankless task of anchoring this as Ellen, a hard-working ER surgeon and mother who – oh, the irony – has become an exploiter of the poor thanks to her need for a full-time Filipino nanny. Meanwhile, Ellen's entrepreneurial husband Leo (Gael Garcia Bernal) learns his own lessons about poverty as he takes an altruistic interest in the well-being of a Thai prostitute while on a business trip to Bangkok. Bad things duly happen to everybody involved, but only so the Ellen and Leo can come through it stronger, nicer and more enriched as people – an experience we're clearly supposed to share by watching this woolly nonsense.

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