Movie reviews

JOHN MADDEN’S The Debt (15A) opens in modern Israel, with Rachel (Helen Mirren) attending the launch of her daughter’s book, which details a mission carried out by three Mossad agents in East Berlin during the 1960s.

The three agents were Rachel, her former husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciarán Hinds), who are national heroes for the part they played in executing former Nazi Dieter Vogel. That the trio have secrets to hide, however, becomes apparent when David steps in front of a speeding truck, and the film flashes back to the mission in Berlin. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy received mixed reviews, with some complaining that the movie wasn’t very thrilling for a spy flick, but The Debt blends that film’s downbeat tone and penchant for scuzzy detail with a tense and twisting plot, and also shoehorns in a love triangle. Not all of the elements fit neatly into the jigsaw, but Madden keeps a sure grip on his story. Mirren is in excellent form as the haunted Rachel, and Chastain rises to the challenge of portraying the younger Rachel with equal intensity. The finale flirts with hyperbole, it’s true, but even then the film never loses sight of its central theme, the question of how we define good against evil, and how the lines between the two can blur in the quest for justice.

Red State (18s) also raises interesting questions about conventional notions of good and evil. Lured by the promise of no-strings sex, three teenage boys in America’s Mid-West discover that the woman they’ve met on the internet is in fact a honey trap, and that her husband, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), is the leader of a fundamentalist Christian sect which practises a literal interpretation of the Old Testament when it comes to dealing with those they consider to be unworthy of life: fornicators, homosexuals, unbelievers. A charismatic, down-to-earth preacher, Cooper is a fine study, the antithesis of contemporary liberal thought, and the very personification of intolerance — until, that is, a SWAT team arrives outside the cult’s compound led by Agent Keenan (John Goodman), and the audience is introduced to an entirely different brand of intolerance, as Keenan receives orders to wipe out the entire sect, children included. Written and directed by Kevin Smith, the film is more interested in raising difficult questions than providing pat answers, but it offers more than a fascinating clash of cultures. Smith sets an urgent, visceral tone from the very start, and maintains the tension throughout, blending the moral conundrums into a series of tautly constructed action set-pieces that are genuinely edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Lars Von Trier has become a byword for controversy, but his latest film, Melancholia (15A), is content to be quietly, subtly provocative. In effect, it’s an art-house disaster movie, with sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) struggling to come to terms with Justine’s debilitating depression as a strange blue planet hoves into view on a collision course with Earth. This being a Von Trier film, there are no madcap plans to fire nuclear missiles at the blue planet; instead there’s a seductive tone of inevitability as the characters await their fate, the pessimistic commentary on human nature given a fabulous and occasionally surreal sheen by the quirky, haunting imagery. Dunst gets strong support from a fine cast, which includes Gainsbourg, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier and Kiefer Sutherland.

A disaster movie of an entirely different kind, Cane Toads: The Conquest (PG) is a documentary detailing the irrepressible wave of cane toads that has swept across Australia since the creature’s introduction in the 1930s to combat the crop-devouring greyback beetle. Unusual camera angles, an inventive use of 3D and a tongue-in-cheek humour give Mark Lewis’s film an offbeat appeal, although it does become repetitive: as much as you want to admire the toads’ relentless struggle to survive and thrive, it’s very hard to warm to the slimy, croaking creatures.

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