Film reviews: Machine Gun Preacher | Weekend | Straw Dogs | Tower Heist | Snow Flower and the Secret Fan | Jack Goes Boating

David Sumner (James Marsden) takes up arms in Straw Dogs
David Sumner (James Marsden) takes up arms in Straw Dogs
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Our film critic takes a look at some of the best and worts of this week’s new releases...

Machine Gun Preacher (15) ***

Directed by: Marc Forster

Starring: Gerard Butler, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Shannon, Souleymane Sy Savane

IT’S telling that the posters for Machine Gun Preacher are playing up director Marc Forster’s reputation as the maker of worthy-but-dull prestige movies such as The Kite Runner instead of his status as the cut-to-the-chase hack who made the last Bond film. This vehicle for Gerard Butler certainly suffers a little too much from a desire to be taken seriously, when really it works better when it gives into its baser instincts and behaves more like an amped-up exploitation film. Based on an almost-too-good-to-be-true story, it stars Butler as Sam Childers, a violent, junkie ex-con who finds God and decides to devote his life to saving orphaned kids in war-torn Sudan. As a character, he’s perfect fodder for Butler’s brand of bullish masculinity and Butler certainly gives it his all, getting away with cheesy redemptive moments while selling us on the gun-toting mercenary whose previous propensity for violence finds a useful outlet by taking on kid-killing rebels. But the film’s attempt to tell Childers’ story in the context of the bigger horrors being perpetrated in the Sudan feels like an unnecessary burden that Forster’s middlebrow approach can’t support. An exploration of the character and his questionable sanity would have been fascinating enough.

Weekend (15) ****

Directed by: Andrew Haigh

Starring: Tom Cullen, Chris New

WRITER/DIRECTOR Andrew Haigh’s low-budget Brit drama about a two men falling for each other over the course of a weekend offers up the kind of subtle, truthful relationship drama that’s all too rare in cinema. It also serves up a clever commentary on sexuality that lays down a challenge to straight audiences who, in the words of one character, are more likely to give art featuring refugees, murder or rape a chance than art featuring gay sex. That double standard is at the heart of Weekend as Haigh underscores how even in a supposedly liberal and progressive country like the UK, the kind of intimate romantic moments we’re bombarded with everyday in heterosexual movies, TV shows, advertising and in real life are tinged with bigotry when same-sex couples are involved. What’s great about the film, though, is that it’s not a polemic. Instead, Haigh brings all this out organically through believable characters. In this he’s complemented by actors Tom Cullen and Chris New who do good, naturalistic work, carefully teasing out the layers of complexity in the script and bringing the characters to life in a way that stops them seeming like convenient ciphers for any agenda-setting.

Straw Dogs (18) ***

Directed by: Rod Lurie

Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth

SAM Peckinpah’s most problematic film gets an intriguing, if flawed, update from film critic-turned-director Rod Lurie. Relocating the action from Cornwall to the Deep South, and largely stripping the home-invasion thriller of its more overt misogyny, Lurie turns the film into a more focused, if not quite as provocative, meditation on masculinity in the modern age. James Marsden takes over the wimpy Dustin Hoffman role and, while it’s an unenviable task, it’s a reasonably clever piece of casting. Riffing on Marsden’s status as movie star who, despite his sculpted and capable-looking physique, wasn’t man enough to compete with Hugh Jackman’s machismo in X-Men or hold on to Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane in Superman Returns, Lurie has found a good in-jokey way to update the character for a more image-conscious age, something he reinforces by actually reuniting him with Bosworth, who here plays Marsden’s dissatisfied wife, which helps reinforce the tension that comes from his character’s inability to stand up for her (or himself) as they return to her redneck hometown. Unfortunately, such things only get the film so far and, as Straw Dogs works towards its atavistic conclusion, Lurie moves into annoyingly prescriptive Michael Haneke territory, scolding us for craving violent entertainment while serving up exactly that.

Tower Heist (12A) **

Directed by: Brett Ratner

Starring: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Tea Leoni, Gabourey Sidibe, Casey Affleck

WORKING from a not unpromising premise in which put-upon service workers plot against a Bernie Madoff-style Wall Street fraudster who has ripped off their pension fund, Tower Heist proceeds to wreck any little-guy-against-the-corrupt-system goodwill with slack plotting, patronising characterisation and the sight of obscenely rich movie stars participating in expensive-looking set-pieces that make no narrative sense. That last aspect is designed to distract attention from the first two problems, but the irony of throwing money at the screen to paper over the shortfalls of a credit-crunch-themed caper movie is lost on director Brett Ratner, whose proficiency at blockbuster set-pieces doesn’t extent to marshalling them into a coherent story. What tokenistic story elements there are revolve around the building manager (Ben Stiller) of an ostentatious New York apartment block who teams up with staff – and a local thief (Eddie Murphy) – to steal the multimillion-dollar stash of “flight money” hidden in the penthouse of a convicted tycoon (Alan Alda). Established interpersonal relationships and character quirks are quickly forgotten as Ratner powers ahead with the heist, but even here his disdain for the basic pleasures of the genre ensures he botches it.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (12A) **

Directed by: Wayne Wang

Starring: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Archie Kao, Hugh Jackman

A CAMEO from Hugh Jackman as a Mandarin-singing nightclub owner is about the only thing that livens up this generation-spanning tale of female friendship. Jumping back-and-forth between 19th and 21st-century China, the film tells parallel stories of two sets of women bonded through time by the intensity of their respective friendships. At least, that’s what director Wayne Wang implies by having both sets of women played by the same actresses. In reality, it’s hard to see how the modern day tale of career woman Lily (Bingbing Li) and her attempts to trace the roots of her soured friendship with comatose best pal Sophia (Gianna Jun) relates to the harrowing story of the titular Snow Flower (Jun), whose bond with the lower-class Nina (Li) sustains her through ritualistic maiming and a brutal marriage. The period story is certainly more interesting, particularly as it delves into all the covert rituals of Snow Flower and Nina’s relationship and shows how they amount to a survival strategy for women in a patriarchal world. But framing it with the contemporary story just feels facile and out of place, something symbolised by Jackman’s sudden appearance.

Jack Goes Boating (15) **

Directed by: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Oritz, Daphne Rubin-Vega

PHILIP Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut is the sort of quasi-indie, Sundance-friendly film actors of his stature often make when taking a break from high-paying studio work. Adapting the play by Robert Glaudini in which Hoffman also starred, Hoffman plays Jack, a beanie-wearing sad-sack limo driver who has no luck with women. Determined to help him out, his best friend Clyde (John Oritz) gets his wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), to set him up with her funeral parlour colleague Connie (Amy Ryan), a fellow lonely heart trying to avoid picking up any more emotional scars. Despite a semi-disastrous first date, Jack is sufficiently hooked by her desires, to go boating and perhaps have a guy cook for her, to take swimming and cooking lessons. Naturally, that’s Hoffman’s directorial cue to start piling on heavy-handed life metaphors, and while he gets good performances out of his cast, the characters feel a little too condescendingly conceived as “ordinary people” to make this meaningful. It doesn’t help that his stylistic ticks are very much those of a rookie filmmaker and, in the end, all the slow-motion learning of Hoffman’s character seems like an apt symbol for someone treading water with safe material.