Film: A surprising turn of events from Moore
* Where to Invade Next (No Cert, IFI, 120 mins), 4 stars
* Mother's Day (12A, 118mins), 2 Stars
* When Marnie Was There (PG, 103mins), 5 Stars
* Fire at Sea (No Cert, IFI, 108mins), 4 Stars
I haven't always been Michael Moore's biggest fan: he makes polemics rather than documentaries, jokey lectures that hammer home points of view established long before the cameras started rolling. His onscreen antics haven't always been edifying, that ambush of an elderly and clearly bewildered Charlton Heston at the end of 'Bowling for Columbine' being a perfect case in point. But his robust criticisms of his country can be refreshing, and his new film is the best thing he's done in a while.
In Where to Invade Next, Mr Moore heads to Europe to 'invade' a series of countries and steal ideas that might work in the US. He examines how the Italians maintain productivity and health by taking plenty of holidays, how the French teach children how to eat, and how women's rights have been advanced in Iceland and Tunisia. He visits Portugal to see how the decriminalisation of drug use has had surprising success, and tours prisons in Norway where murderers and guards form friendships.
All of this implicitly criticises the failures of America's increasingly iniquitous society, but more subtly and intelligently than is usually the case in Mr Moore's work. It's surprisingly thought-provoking.
Garry Marshall's Mother's Day is made to a natty but mind-numbing formula he established in his two previous romantic comedies, 'Valentine's Day' and 'New Year's Eve'. In those films and this, a group of seemingly unconnected characters live through minor psychodramas that will slowly intersect. Mother's Day stars Jennifer Aniston as Sandy, a put-upon mother-of-two who has remained on surprisingly cordial terms with her ex-husband Henry (Timothy Olyphant) until he marries a beautiful 25-year-old.
Sandy feels threatened, and meanwhile Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, Jason Sudeikis and Britt Robertson play men and women coping with problems that seem similarly intractable, but will shortly be resolved by Mr Marshall's magic wand. It's tiresome stuff for the most part, but there are a few genuinely funny scenes, and even in muck like this, Ms Aniston shines.
A whiff of sadness surrounds When Marnie Was There, and not just because of its rather morbid storyline. Hiromasa Yonebayashi's drama may be that last film we ever get from the celebrated Studio Ghibli, which has ceased production following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki. If so, When Marnie Was There is a fitting coda, because although more sombre than some of the studio's biggest hits, it has in spades the gorgeous, painstaking animation that has become Ghibli's trademark.
When a lonely 12-year-old adopted girl called Anna is sent to a seaside town to live with relations, she struggles to fit in. She wanders alone by the sea and spends most of her time drawing, but when she meets a beautiful blond girl called Marnie, Anna enters a glamorous and mysterious world that may or may not be real.
When Marnie was There is a fantasy with a real sense of melancholy, and is full of the haunting visual poetry one has come to expect from this remarkable and consistently excellent studio.
Less edifying but equally compelling, Gianfranco Rosi's arty documentary Fire at Sea is set during a grim summer on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa as it tries to cope with the immigrant crisis.
Interestingly, Mr Rosi contrasts the numbing horror of heaving, makeshift refugee boats with the simple life of a poor local boy, who shoots at birds with his catapult and worries neurotically about his health, little realising his comparative luck.
This impeccably photographed film doesn't quite manage to reconcile its two narratives, but should be required viewing for those who think anyone but the desperate would willingly board those fetid coffin ships.