A ramshackle affair

THE PEREZ FAMILY Mira Nair (15) THE LAST SUPPER Stacy Title (15) ORIGINAL GANGSTAS Larry Cohen (18)
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The Independent Culture
In The Perez Family, Marisa Tomei is so ripe and succulent that she looks fit to burst. Her character, an ex-prostitute named Dottie Perez, is leaving Cuba for Miami. Why? To be closer to Elvis. And as for John Wayne... well, what she wants to do to him explains the film's "15" certificate. In one scene, she's watching Wayne in Angel and the Badman when the print starts frying. Tomei makes it perfectly plausible that Dottie's wicked, fruity lust has burnt that hole in the celluloid.

On the boat out of Cuba, Dottie bumps into, or rather rubs up against, Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina), who's tasting freedom for the first time in 20 years after Castro decides to clear his jails of political prisoners and shoo everyone over to America. Juan and Dottie arrive in Miami, and whip up enough misunderstandings for a dozen soap operas.

The following things happen in very quick succession: immigration officials mistake the couple for husband and wife; Juan's brother-in-law Angel (Diego Wallraff) fails to recognise Juan at the port, and returns to Juan's wife Carmela (Anjelica Huston) empty-handed; and Dottie and her sullen new "husband" scoot off to the Orange Bowl Stadium, where they are kept under curfew with their fellow immigrants. So much for freedom.

With Juan missing, Carmela is free to flirt with a charming FBI agent (Chazz Palminteri). Their story intertwines with Juan and Dottie's, always threatening to buckle under the kind of contrivances that Shakespeare would have omitted from Measure for Measure for fear that they would prove a bit much. And though it's a ramshackle affair, its spirit is quite irrepressible, mostly due to the steady pacing of the director Mira Nair, and the faultless casting. There is a liberal peppering of spicy comic actors in the supporting cast, like Ranjit Chowdhry as a beleaguered immigration official, and the strutting Diego Wallraff, who suggests Mario Lanza reborn as a buffoon.

The most unpredictable performances come from Huston and Palminteri, who look delighted to be caught off guard by romance. Huston provides a sweet counterbalance to Tomei's vivacious sexuality, offering a portrait of a woman who's all fingers and thumbs until she finds new love and realises that she hasn't forgotten how to be all legs and lips.

When the five housemates in The Last Supper start inviting people over for dinner and a little conversation, they're actually offering arsenic instead of After Eights, body-bags not doggy-bags. For these five smug know-it-alls are graduates with a grudge, a species only slightly less volatile than undergraduates with a grudge.

The plan is formulated after one of the friends is given a lift home by Bill Paxton, and invites him in. But Paxton turns out to be Ku Klux Klan in all but the pointy hat, and in a heated after-dinner argument, the group kill him. When they begin selecting victims - a misogynist, a homophobe, a pro-lifer - it looks like they've become everything they hate. Stacy Title's ambitious chamber piece isn't nasty or wild enough to have a Bunuelian kick, but those ethical questions that aren't botched by the muddy screenplay get the brain ticking, if only for a second. That's a second more than most films.

As the NFT's Blaxploitation season begins, Larry Cohen's Original Gangstas arrives, revisiting the genre with an initial concern (and some of the genre's original stars) that soon gives way to indiscriminate firepower. Cohen takes the time to trace the bloodline from today's 'hood movies back to the likes of Superfly, but all in all you're better off getting Shafted.

n All films on general release from Friday