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Mother Night; Keith Gordon (15) The Evening Star; Robert Harling (15)
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The Independent Culture
Keith Gordon's adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Mother Night is a brave stab at committing a notoriously wily author to the screen - and no, brave stab isn't a euphemism for botch-job. Gordon succeeds in juggling the contradictory elements in the novel which a paranoid mind might think were there just to fox prospective film-makers. Nick Nolte plays Howard W Campbell Jnr, who is polishing off his memoirs in an Israeli prison while awaiting trial for war crimes. And while it may not be an original idea to distort the brusque punching of his typewriter keys to echo the roar of gunfire, or to shoot Campbell through the gaps in those keys, so that he appears to be trapped inside the typewriter, the effect is still sobering and portentous.

Gordon films those prison scenes in stark black and white; he saves the colour for the flashbacks, when this unassuming American playwright is trying to fashion an heroic identity for himself. Living in Berlin on the cusp of the Second World War with his wife Helga (Sheryl Lee), Campbell is approached by a jovial US agent, who John Goodman plays exactly as if his character from Roseanne had stepped out of Nineties suburban America and straight into Nazi Germany. (You come to realise that this is exactly the way Vonnegut should be approached.) Campbell is offered the chance to become a spy, utilising his social standing and Fascist connections for the benefit of the American government - who will, naturally, deny all knowledge of him.

But it's the sense of adventure that snares Campbell. He doesn't realise that in his efforts to be somebody, he is destined to become less of a person than ever. He is engulfed by his facade, stranded between the Nazis, whom his ferocious radio broadcasts celebrate, and the Allies, who detect in his transmissions the coded messages to which he is oblivious.

It requires a steady hand to negotiate Vonnegut's sudden lurches in tone, but Gordon treats the material with immense flair. He shoots Mother Night as a combination of straight-faced Hollywood melodrama, piercing satire and off-Off-Broadway revue - often all in the space of one scene - and once you tune into this style, the film can be very rewarding. Until then, you can feel delightfully flummoxed, as Robert B Weide's screenplay encourages you to giggle at the very points where it feels most inappropriate - such as when Campbell is ordered to shoot a young girl's dog, and approaches the child with avuncular warmth only for her to declare coldly, "I never liked it anyway".

Audiences searching for laughter uncomplicated by moral considerations may greet the arrival of a quartet of broadly comic neo-Nazis on Campbell's doorstep with some relief, at least until their knockabout antics give way to flashes of anti-Semitism. It's pleasing to find a film which not only neglects to signpost its laughs, but erects misleading signals in place of those missing indicators. We're so used to being mollycoddled by film-makers that watching Mother Night can feel like cycling without stabilisers for the first time.

Nolte gives a performance of fierce concentration as Campbell, and retains the same air of bewildered complicity whether hunched and hidden beneath talons of grey hair in his cell, or suave as the Nazi socialite, his mouth ringed by one of those beards which suggests someone tricked him into blowing a trumpet that had boot polish smeared on the mouthpiece. In his best scene, he is silent, hiding behind a screen on to which an old film of him as a young propagandist is being projected: the rabid wordsmith rants until he foams at the mouth, his image flickering across the face of his older self, who is appalled at the monster he has become. In Gordon's intelligent, intuitive picture, you sense that the ironies of filming a fable about the accountability of actors and story-tellers have not gone unnoticed.

You're never more than 30 minutes away from a terminal illness in The Evening Star, a sequel to the 1983 weepie Terms of Endearment. Shirley MacLaine returns as the supposedly lovable but actually damned irritating Aurora Greenway, who is attempting to raise her grandchildren, battle with her rival for their affections, Patsy (Miranda Richardson), and charm the slacks off a young counsellor (Bill Paxton). Into this bloodless sitcom scenario, writer-director Robert Harling sprinkles death like fairy dust. But he has no cinematic sensibility to draw on - whole scenes here consist of nothing but characters perusing old family albums - and so the picture has neither comic sparkle nor emotional punch; it's anti-cinema.

But The Evening Star ultimately has its own merits - like a cameo from Jack Nicholson, with his rattling, salacious laugh. And I can't think of another film where you could expect to hear the line, "Less than a year ago, you were lying in a hospital bed near death, and now you're a television star!", or be forced to ponder the dilemma of what to do with your second wife's ashes, when your first wife already occupies pride of place on the mantelpiecen

Both films are on release from tomorrow

Ryan Gilbey

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