Our critic reviews the best and worst of this week's new releases...
Route Irish (15) **
Directed by: Ken Loach
Starring: Mark Womack, Andrea Lowe, John Bishop
It was probably only a matter of time before Ken Loach and his screenwriting partner Paul Laverty got round to addressing the war in Iraq directly. And what a shocker: rather than taking the time to craft an intelligent, dramatically compelling film about war, they've approached it in typically didactic, heavy-handed fashion, apparently still clinging to the belief that raising an important issue is where their commitment to gripping storytelling ends. The issue in this instance is the privatisation of war, particularly the way in which corporate security firms have made a killing by acting with impunity in conflict-torn regions. Which is a good, meaty backdrop for a film, but Loach and Laverty drain any interest out of it by tethering Route Irish – the name for the road running between Baghdad airport and the Green Zone – to a plodding, Liverpool-set conspiracy thriller following the attempts of an ex-SAS officer (Mark Womack) to uncover the true cause of his friend's death in Iraq. The condescending, exposition-heavy script is torture enough to sit through (whatever happened to 'show, don't tell'?), but the amateur-hour acting and melodramatic, cop-out ending expose Loach's faux attempts at realism to be as phoney as anything produced in Hollywood.
Chalet Girl (12a)***
Directed by: Phil TrailL
Starring: Felicity Jones, Tamsin Egerton, Bill Nighy, Ed Westwick
Brit star-in-the-making Felicity Jones performs life-saving duties on this fluffy, shabbily produced romantic comedy about a working-class girl (Jones) who takes a job in a plush ski resort populated by trust-fund kids and their class-conscious parents. As the headstrong, no-nonsense Kim, she oozes underdog charm and charisma, which makes it easy enough to get on her side, despite some of the lazy jokes she's forced to contend with, not to mention the hoky backstory involving a deceased mother, a comically depressed father (Bill Bailey) and an abortive career as a pro-skateboarder. Jones also has a natural gift for self-deprecating comedy, and a nice line in sarcasm, both of which help steer the film away from the simpering, ski season-set Cinderella story it keeps threatening to morph into after the rich, handsome son (Ed Westwick) of Kim's employer starts taking an interest in her. Instead, as Kim discovers a talent for snowboarding, Chalet Girl becomes a sort of goofy celebration of female self-empowerment, one in which the standard romcom goal of scoring a dreamy boyfriend takes a back seat to finding yourself through being good at something exciting.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (12a)*
Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones
Another wretched Woody Allen release gives yet another round of Hollywood actors the chance to tick him off their legends-to-work-with lists without giving us much to enjoy in the process – beyond smirking at their willingness to appear in the cinematic equivalent of dinner theatre. Set once again in London, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger adopts the punitive tone of Allen's other British-set efforts (Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream) by fixing on a pair of marriages in crisis and spinning a sloppy story full of human foibles, hurt and idiocy that in the end – to paraphrase the Macbeth quote Allen appropriates at the start – signifies nothing. Veteran Brit actress Gemma Jones provides what few grace notes there are as a 60ish woman dumped by her husband (Anthony Hopkins) for a ditzy prostitute. Her more famous colleagues – who also include Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin (as Jones's daughter and son-in-law), and Antonio Banderas (as a gallery owner) – merely go through the motions, enabling workaholic Woody to churn out this inconsequential morality play with no particular enthusiasm nor compunction about its status as the umpteenth variation on themes well covered in Bullets Over Broadway, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Husbands and Wives.
Directed by: Adam Deacon, Daniel Toland
Starring: Adam Deacon, Femi Oyeniran, Ollie Barnieri
Rivalling the recent Fred: The Movie for brain-piercing irritability, this alleged comedy riff on Noel Clarke's urban teen dramas Kidulthood and Adulthood seems to think that having characters who shriek at each other for 85 soul-crushing minutes is all it takes to make an amusing movie. Anuvahood is the brainchild of co-writer/co-director/co-star, Adam Deacon, who presumably got the gig after starring in Clarke's films, but seems confused as to whether he's parodying his inspiration or making a third instalment. He certainly doesn't seem to have any understanding of how to construct a joke, with terrible puns – his wannabe gangster character Kay has a day job at Laimsbury's – lowering the gag bar to a level that the rest of the film doesn't even bother to try and reach. Tonal inconsistencies abound too, with the performances veering from farcical to ferocious and the one-note characters reinforcing rather than deconstructing racial, sexual and homophobic stereotypes. Moments of nasty, non-ironic violence meanwhile make comedy comebacks – not to mention the syrupy, be-true-to-yourself ending – even more of a stretch. The know-your-limits message clearly went unheeded by all involved in making the film.
Benda Bilili! (PG) ***
Directed by: Renaud Barret, Florent de la Tullaye
Five years in the making, this documentary charts the struggles of Congolese musical collective Staff Benda Bilili as they attempt to record an album that reflects their lives as homeless, mostly paraplegic musicians living on the streets of Kinshasha. Using makeshift instruments and wheeling themselves around on improvised wheelchairs, they're driven by raw talent and the unblinking optimism that film-makers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye's offer to produce their album will give them a shot at a better life. That neither director thought the process would last five years is mentioned in the film's introductory voice-over narration. Thenceforth the film-makers mostly fade into the background and simply observe their subjects as they rehearse, fall out, record music and contend with some terrible setbacks. With the years slipping by, the film finds its focus in collective leader "Papa" Rick and his heroic efforts to hold things together, but it also homes in on a young street kid called Roger, a virtuoso soloist (he plays a one-stringed guitar made from wire and tin) whose life, you sense, really could be changed by this. The film is a little short of information and details at times, but it's a compelling and inspiring story all the same.