Confessions (15) and Paul (15)

Movies should choose their subjects for homage more wisely.

For anyone aged 40 or over, the merest glimpse of the word confessions in a film title will summon long-buried images of Robin Askwith as a shaggy-haired window cleaner being assured by a chirpy blonde that he can polish her big ones any time. (Note to those under 40: do you think that "poking" someone on Facebook is any more sophisticated?) The new Japanese film Confessions is not, praise be, a homage to the Confessions sex comedies, though it does call to mind another relic from 1970s British culture: with its plot twists and amplified ironies, it's like an east Asian Tales of the Unexpected, albeit one photographed with the ponderous pomp of a Pearl Jam video.

It begins with the first of the confessions from which the movie's complicated tapestry is woven. Before the day's lessons begin, the high school teacher Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) announces that she is leaving her post. Pay attention, class, for there will be questions later - many questions. What does the death of Moriguchi's partner, who contracted Aids, have to do with her pupils? How did her five-year-old daughter come to drown in the school swimming pool? Why does the teacher's resignation precipitate the breakdowns of two students, one of whom becomes a hermit with a taste for matricide, while the other plots to blow up the school? And where is Ofsted when you really need it?

Presumably, the director, Tetsuya Nakashima, is in full receipt of the plot, given that he also adapted the screenplay from Kanae Minato's novel, but it would have been nice if he shared some of that privileged knowledge with the audience. The film's criss-crossing chronology might be more enticing if its preferred storytelling style were not the rock-promo montage. Halfway through the action, I was craving a scene, any scene, that was played out from start to finish rather than being sliced and diced or interrupted by Athena-poster shots of a butterfly alighting on a fingertip in slow motion. (There's so much slo-mo here that the film resembles a trailer that has been decelerated to achieve a longer running time.)

We learn certain facts about the characters - this one didn't get enough love from his mother, that one got too much - but that's not the same thing as characterisation, which the film prizes less than shimmering cinematography and a way-cool soundtrack. The constant buzz of angst music brought to mind the 1995 film Clueless, in which the heroine turns up her nose at Radiohead (who can also be heard in Nakashima's film). "Ugh, complaint rock," she sniffs. Confessions is complaint cinema.

Paul, an alien-buddy-road movie, is the opposite: it just wants to make you laugh. Mission impossible, at least with this script. The film's writer-stars, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, are the latest in a line of British comics to mistake science fiction for a short cut to transatlantic affection (see Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones in Morons from Outer Space or Ant and Dec in Alien Autopsy). They play nerds who, while on a tour of UFO hot spots in America, meet a smoking, drinking, foul-mouthed Martian named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). The slimy one hitches a lift and is pursued by government agents buffoonish (Bill Hader), sinister (Jason Bateman) and unseen (Sigourney Weaver).

The model here is early Spielberg and there are references to Duel, ET and everything in between, as well as a cameo, in voice only, by the bearded one himself. Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) directs with agreeable vim but no discernible personality, while the dynamic between his stars proves too feeble to carry the picture. When Brian De Palma pays homage to Hitchcock, he brings his own feverish, uncouth energy to the party. All Paul does is remind you of Spielberg's greatness; it's as scrappy and eager to please as most fan fiction. Science-fiction nerds will be ticking off the in-jokes (Paul eats Reese's Pieces, just like ET! The music played in a redneck bar is from the cantina scene in Star Wars!) while everyone else will just be ticked off. I laughed once, at a cleverly reprised line from Aliens. The rest is as funny as Robin Askwith on an off day.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The offshore City