Film reviews: Biutiful | Barney's Version | Tangled | How Do You Know | The Mechanic

Our critics review the best and worst of this week's new releases....

Biutiful (15)***

Directed by: Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu

Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel lvarez, Eduard Fernndez

Javier Bardem picked up an Oscar nomination earlier this week for his role in Biutiful, perhaps in recognition of the fact that were it not for his weighty, soulful presence, Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu's latest feel-bad wallow in human suffering really would be too much to bear. Bardem grounds a film that piles misery upon misery, even making credible some of the film's metaphysical conceits – this is the second film this week to feature a main character who can commune with the dead. He plays Uxbal, a terminally ill father-of-two living in a rundown part of Barcelona where he scrapes together a meagre living as an intermediary for the city's low-level Senegalese drug dealers and illegal Chinese immigrant sweatshop workers. Uxbal certainly feels dreadful about being part of an exploitative system of which he's also a victim. This being a tragedy, however, his efforts at redemption go disastrously wrong, further burdening him with yet more guilt as he tries to secure a future for his children while fending off the malign presence of his violent, estranged wife. There's no denying Irritu's striking images do the job of creating a deliberately oppressive atmosphere, but without Bardem, any human connection would be lost. AH

Barney's Version (15)**

Directed by: Richard J Lewis

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, Scott Speedman

Jumping back and forth through 30 years in the life of misanthropic TV producer Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), this adaptation of the late Canadian writer Mordecai Richler's playfully experimental novel about a man making sense of his wasted life feels rather like its antihero: inadequate. Sentimental in tone and piecemeal in construction, it's a gooey amalgam of dramatic moments (deaths, marriages, illness) explicated by a raft of frustratingly underdeveloped characters. The mysterious disappearance of Barney's best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) and the inevitable failure of his third marriage to love-of-his-life Miriam (Rosamund Pike) are the parenthetical points in Barney's life to which the film repeatedly returns, but what emerges in between rarely adds up to anything more than the sight of a middle-aged man who never learned to keep it in his pants wallowing in his own self-created misery. Saddled with an array of terrible wigs, Giamatti seems unusually restrained here, only really coming to life in a couple of all-too-brief scenes with Dustin Hoffman (cast as his randy and playfully belligerent father). Unfortunately the curious inertness that seems to have afflicted Giamatti's performance, also undermines Pike's lovely efforts to give shading to Miriam: it's impossible to see what she ever saw in him. AH

Tangled (PG)***

Directed by: Nathan Greno, Byron Howard

Voices: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman

After a few too many inferior Pixar-style movies, Disney's 50th animated feature is a CG-rendered return to the all-singing, all-dancing musical fairytales with which the studio made its name. If reports are to be believed, it's also that last time Disney will go down this route, making this a fitting swansong, if only because it means the Mouse House is bowing out on something of a high. Riffing on Rapunzel, Tangled turns the tale into an amusing and spirited adventure story about a young girl (Mandy Moore) with magical hair trying to escape the guilt-tripping parental clutches of her wicked enchantress mother (Broadway star Donna Murphy). The latter has an effective line in Mommie Dearest-style passive-aggressive putdowns, best expressed in the film's finest song – the Alan Menken-composed Mother Knows Best. This relationship, together with the rare sight of sophisticated female characters in a male-dominated field, helps kick Tangled up a gear, so it's a shame the prominence of Rapunzel's wayward love interest – a thief on the make called Flynn – needlessly distracts from this good work. Still, at least the film doesn't sell out and turn her into a simpering damsel in distress. AH

How Do You Know (12A)**

Directed by: James L Brooks

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson

The latest all-star soap from Terms of Endearment helmsman Brooks offers the sight of likeable performers doing their best to rescue a script that bears precious little relation to reality. The title refers to the romantic quandary faced by Witherspoon's Lisa now her professional softball career is coming to an end. One option: nice but dim jock Matty (Owen Wilson), whose bedroom expertise Lisa has to share with several other women. The other: sensitive listener George (Paul Rudd), an eminent catch distracted by the fraud charges hovering over him and his corrupt father (a hammy Jack Nicholson).

Witherspoon is the obvious winner, letting her hair down and showing how radiant, even sexy, she can be when not playing professional try-hards – and unlike the mirthless likes of The Ugly Truth, it's a romcom with actual chuckles, if not laughs. It's just a pity Brooks isn't above phony narrative crises and dialogue too often indistinguishable from the Post-It platitudes tacked to Lisa's bathroom mirror. More creative energy has gone into furnishing these characters' apartments than devising credible emotional situations to put them in; the result is wholly undemanding, and best saved for a long-haul flight. MM

The Mechanic (15) ***

Directed by: Simon West

Starring: Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland

Jason Statham's reliably furrowed brow gets a thorough workout in this generally efficient remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle; I suspects he won't be the only onlooker baffled by the multiple-crosses playing out here. For starters, there's no plausible reason for Statham's hired assassin Bishop to off his own wheelchair-bound go-between (Donald Sutherland) in the opening moments, save to get the plot off with a bang. Out of guilt, Bishop adopts his former employer's unruly offspring (Ben Foster) as a partner – and while the lad's aim improves rapidly, his ultimate target remains whoever killed his pa. There's not much humour, and little place for women, either, save to pop their heads up (and tops off) every now and again to prove the deadly bromance goes only so far. Yet Brit director Simon West, formerly a blow-it-all-to-hell merchant (Con Air), devotes himself to the intricacies of the hit, sketching neat thumbnails of Bishop's victims, and ratcheting up the tension when Foster fumbles a bolt at the scene of one assignment. It's nuts-and-bolts action cinema, of the kind that does a job come Saturday night: on the Stath-o-meter, nothing so delirious as Crank, but a marked improvement on the Transporters. MM