UK of the wel­comes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews -

YOU DO have to (re­luc­tantly) hand it to the French. There are few other Euro­peans ca­pa­ble of reg­u­larly de­liv­er­ing this class of well-crafted, well-acted melo­drama. Not ex­actly an art film, but not tied solely to the main­stream ei­ther, this touch­ing melo­drama proves that there is no shame in be­ing work­man­like.

Ven­tur­ing into ter­ri­tory pre­vi­ously oc­cu­pied by Michael Win­ter­bot­tom’s In This World, the film fol­lows Bi­lal (Fi­rat Ayverdi), a Kur­dish refugee as he at­tempts to make his way across Europe to meet his girl­friend in Lon­don.

Af­ter some squalid ad­ven­tures on the back of a lorry, Bi­lal finds him­self stranded in Calais. Us­ing the mu­nic­i­pal pool as much for its shower fa­cil­i­ties as for ex­er­cise, he en­coun­ters Si­mon (Vin­cent Lin­don), a mid­dle-aged swim­ming in­struc­tor, and em­barks on a se­ries of lessons. Grad­u­ally, Si­mon, lonely af­ter his re­cent sep­a­ra­tion, re­alises that his pupil has an ab­surd scheme in mind.

The vet­eran Lin­don, so good in the re­cent Any­thing for Her, and

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Ayverdi, mak­ing his de­but, play very well against one an­other. The two char­ac­ters rep­re­sent ex­pe­ri­ence and youth­ful naivety, and the dis­par­ity in the ac­tors’ pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ences shows through in their nicely con­trast­ing per­for­mances.

Though an un­showy di­rec­tor, Lioret pro­vides im­pres­sive, spooky shots of the busy com­merce round Calais and works to es­tab­lish a res­o­nant sense of place. Wel­come is, how­ever, a rather sen­ti­men­tal piece that wears its wor­thy in­ten­tions a lit­tle too con­spic­u­ously. It is the sort of film that de­mands masochis­tic self-cas­ti­ga­tion from bour­geois cin­ema­go­ers.

None of that is to sug­gest that the films in­ten­tions are in­sin­cere or that it ever be­comes a drag. The fact that it may be good for you doesn’t mean it’s bad. This French char­ac­ter study wouldn’t chew up too many of our nat­u­ral re­sources: Es­sen­tially it’s a two-handed char­ac­ter piece, so de­spite its pro­fes­sional ap­pear­ance, it would only have needed a rel­a­tively small cast and pro­duc­tion crew. HOW FAR can you get with lit­tle else but charm and good­will in your back­pack? On the ev­i­dence of this en­joy­ably barmy adap­ta­tion of a non­fic­tion book by Jon Ron­son, half­way round the world and back again.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is so un­sure of its own place in the uni­verse that it of­ten threat­ens to slide off the screen and drain through the gut­ter be­neath. Is it a gen­uine at­tempt to con­vey in­for­ma­tion about the US armed forces’ in­ter­est in psy­chic re­search? Is it a post­mod­ern co­nun­drum in the spirit of Spike Jonze’s work? Is it an ex­er­cise in lib­eral satire? Who cares? It fea­tures Ge­orge Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey as mil­i­tary men who be­lieve they can read minds, fore­tell the fu­ture and, yes, kill goats just by looking at them. That’s more than enough to jus­tify the ad­mis­sion price.

In its slip­pery ap­proach to the truth as well as its con­fi­dence in its own ir­re­sistibil­ity, The Men Who Stare at Goats has much in com­mon with Clooney’s equally pe­cu­liar Con­fes­sions of a Danger­ous Mind. Ewan “Weak Link” McGre­gor plays an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist who, fol­low­ing the break-up of his mar­riage, heads for the Mid­dle East in search of the big story.

In a Kuwait ho­tel he bumps into an Amer­i­can of­fi­cer named Lyn Cassidy and, be­cause the fel­low has Ge­orge Clooney’s agree­able head, gets drawn into his story about covert US mil­i­tary di­vi­sions, nick­named “Jedi war­riors”, who dab­ble in para­nor­mal ac­tiv­ity. “What’s a Jedi war­rior?” McGre­gor asks in the des­per­ate hope that we’ll re­mem­ber he was once in a Star Wars film.

It’s just as well the pic­ture fea­tures such ami­able per­for­mances and wal­lows in such fas­ci­nat­ing quasi-fac­tual back­wa­ters, be­cause, with the best will in the world, you couldn’t say that it has any­thing like a plot.

Told largely in flash­back, while Clooney and Weak Link stag­ger their way from desert to hostage sit­u­a­tion to mil­i­tary de­ten­tion, The Men Who Stare at Goats is al­most zany enough to have sprung from the same 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture that spawned the Jedi units. Maybe the end­ing is too stupid to bear, per­haps the con­nec­tion to the facts is too in­se­cure, but you’d have to be a very hard-hearted per­son in­deed to re­sist this weird film’s suave ad­vances. The over­all mes­sage of this ec­cen­tric es­pi­onage film is peace and love, man. But it’s not to­tally green – the pro­duc­tion de­pends on plenty of ex­tras, at least one large set, one ex­plo­sion and a num­ber of gas-guz­zling he­li­copters.

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