Film reviews: A roundup of the latest films in the cinemas

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Jeff, Who Lives At Home (15), Cafe de Flore (15), Beauty (18), Being Elmo (U) and Two Years at Sea (U)

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (15)

Directed by: Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass

Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer

Rating: ***

WITH their previous film Cyrus, directing siblings Mark and Jay Duplass managed to subvert a formulaic mainstream comedy premise by approaching it with the casual naturalism of their earlier Mumblecore capers The Puffy Chair and Baghead. With Jeff, Who Lives at Home, they apply the same shtick to the hokey supernatural thrillers of M Night Shyamalan, specifically his breathtakingly silly alien invasion movie Signs.

That’s the film that basement-dwelling paranoid pothead Jeff (Jason Segel) has become obsessed with, believing random coincidences in his own life have some cosmic significance, something that will give meaning to the general malaise that characterises his pathetic existence as a 30-year-old unemployed man who still lives with his mother, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). Set over the course of a single day, the film is built around the dot-joining Jeff as he runs an errand for Sharon while she contends with the possibility of having a secret admirer in her office and Jeff’s resentful, self-starting, but no-less immature older brother Pat (Ed Helms) discovers that his long-suffering wife Linda (the brilliant Judy Greer) may be on the verge of leaving him. It’s whimsical stuff, but likeable and, if not exactly profound, finds value in the sometimes dumb plots of Hollywood movies.

Café de Flore (15)

Directed by: Jean Marc Valée

Starring: Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent, Marin Gerrier

Rating: *

THIS barking mad, cosmically entwined love story from French-Canadian director Jean Marc Valée (C.R.A.Z.Y. and the dreary Young Victoria) is built around such a dreadful, horribly pretentious and thoroughly offensive idea, it’s tempting to reveal the twist at the outset.

That, however, would rob anyone going to see it of its full jaw-dropping stupidity when it finally arrives on screen. Suffice to say this twist – or rather, this narrative implication (nothing in the film is ever explicitly stated outright) – is the thing that connects the seemingly disparate stories that Valée cuts between for the duration of the movie. In one, Vanessa Paradis plays a single mother in 1960s Paris struggling to raise her beloved Down’s Syndrome son (the adorable Marin Gerrier) at a time of prejudice and limited understanding of his condition.

In the other, Kevin Parent plays an obnoxious superstar DJ in present-day Montréal who finds himself inexplicably drawn to a woman who’s not his wife. Valée cynically uses the former story to melt hearts and the latter to peddle tired old ideas about the heart wanting what the heart wants: but it’s the way he uses the spectre of tragedy forever hanging over the former to justify the action of the latter that makes this so thoroughly objectionable.

Beauty (18)

Directed by: Oliver Hermanus

Starring: DeOn Lotz, Roeline Daneel, Charlie Keegan, Sue Diepeveen

Rating: ****

POST-APARTHEID South Africa is put under the spotlight once more in Beauty, a hard-hitting look at the Afrikaner psyche that, intriguingly, avoids matters of racial integration. Instead, its focal point is a commanding and complex central performance from Deon Lotz as François, a successful white middle-aged family man who has all the privileges and freedoms afforded to him by virtue of belonging to this specific demographic at this moment in time. Nevertheless, François is tormented by a rigidly traditionalist view of the world, one that eats away at him as he sees his grown-up daughter’s generation embrace life with fewer cares and inhibitions. Consequently, he’s prone to outbursts of rage, frequently sounds off on the state of the country, and is openly contemptuous of his wife and family. His only apparent respite are secret rendezvous with other like-minded, self-loathing white guys – the specifics of which come not as a shock, exactly, but are revealed with such eye-opening, uncompromising explicitness that it’s clear that some kind of crisis is looming for François. Beauty details this in slow-burning, powerful ways, making cogent links between its protagonist’s troubled mindset and a country that perhaps hasn’t progressed as much as one might have hoped.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (U)

Directed by: Constance Marks

Rating: ***

THOUGH the parallel with Being John Malkovich conjured by this likeable documentary about the man behind Sesame Street’s biggest star becomes more pronounced thanks to the way its softball-lobbing style resembles the spoof documentary contained within Spike Jonze’s surreal classic, there’s not much dirt to be found on its subject, Kevin Clash. Rather, his drive to become a puppeteer, work with Jim Henson and, after creating Elmo, dedicate himself to bringing joy to children around the world, is an example of the sort of pursue-your-dreams dedication that’s tough to knock (even if his touched-upon absence from his own daughter’s life does tinge his accomplishments with a small degree of irony). As such, while it’s not the most compelling of cinematic documentaries, it does have plenty to enjoy.

It’s most fascinating when tracing Clash’s early life as a low-income Baltimore kid who went from entertaining the neighbourhood children with his home-made puppets to a career on national TV, but there are nice little insights into the workings of the Muppet workshops too, and a lovely moment when he reveals how he rescued Elmo from ignominy by giving him his adorable high-pitched voice and mildly rebellious personality.

Two Years At Sea (U)

Directed by: Ben Rivers

Rating: **

AT THE risk of coming across as a bit of a Philistine, there’s not much to commend this black-and-white 16mm art film from British director Ben Rivers. Not quite a documentary or a work of fiction, it’s a deliberately obfuscated portrait of a hermit living in a beautiful, isolated part of the Cairngorms. This is Jake Williams, a real guy whose day-to-day existence is chronicled without words in visually poetic detail.

As we watch Jake toil about his shabby house, the film attempts to lure us into the mystery of what drew him there, dropping hints with shots of Jake contemplating photos of loved ones or gazing for minutes at a time at his craggy, bearded face. A couple of intriguing and arresting images aside (one in particular of a caravan balancing atop some branches in the woods near Jake’s house has a definite Herzog-style strangeness to it), while Two Years at Sea is perfectly pleasant to drift through for a short period, over the course of 80-odd minutes, the cumulative effect is – whisper it – a little boring.