Destiny Turns on the Radio Jack Baran (15)
Guarding Tess Hugh Wilson (12)
Clockwork Mice Vadim Jean (15)
Oliver Twist David Lean (U)
Hype rules the British cinema scene and one feels faintly apologetic for singling out for commendation, among all the high-profile English- language movies opening this week, an obscure Chinese film by a director, Zhou Xiaowen, unknown in the West. But, in a gathering summer drought of good or even watchable movies, Ermo is one of the best new films around.
It has none of the big-budget opulence which now marks the work of Zhou's better-known contemporaries, Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. It's a small, no-frills story set in a remote but distinctively contemporary region of North China. The heroine, one of those tough peasant women in the mould of Zhang's The Story of Qiu Ju, is locked in a feud with her neighbour and resolves to put her nose out of joint by buying a (by Chinese standards) huge, ostentatious and very expensive television set. To this end she twists noodles by night and day, weaves baskets, sells her blood by the gallon. And she does get her wish, but somehow it doesn't bring her quite the pleasure she had hoped.
Ermo is a lively, constantly diverting film: it has amusing, colourful characters, a generous dash of humour and not a jot of sentimentality. And there's a strong sense of China today, hurtling towards consumerism without anyone stopping to consider what this affluence will bring. It's plainly shot, confident enough about its story not to need clever gimmicks. I liked it for its grasping, vindictive, vulnerable, curiously likable heroine who gulps down three bowls of water before selling her blood, in order (she thinks) to dilute it. I liked it because it shows you in great detail how to make twisty noodles (although no-one watching this backbreaking work will be tempted to go into the trade). And because it told you that when the Chinese wear his 'n' her T-shirts, the male version bears the slogan "I am a cloud" and the female one reads "I am a blade of grass".
Destiny Turns on the Radio, by contrast, thinks it's so cool; how they must have crowed when Quentin Tarantino, king of hip, signed for one of the leading roles. He plays a mysterious, possibly mystical character called Johnny Destiny (why are all these iconic types - Suede, Guitar, Handsome, Mnemonic - always called Johnny? Fred Destiny has more of a ring, and at least it's original) drifting through a tarnished neon-tinted Las Vegas of crooks and losers. The intended tone of romantic, magical comedy is spectacularly misjudged; even QT fans should give the film a miss (he's terrible). And while it might be a cute title, Destiny, as I recall, never did get to turn on the radio.
In Guarding Tess, Nicolas Cage's Secret Service agent gets the assignment from hell: Head of Security for a cantankerous, widowed First Lady (Shirley MacLaine) retired and festering somewhere in the bowels of the deep Midwest with nothing to do but make her minder's life a misery. The premise suggests a jocular comedy in the Driving Miss Daisy mode, but the director, Hugh Wilson, hails from the Police Academy and has trouble with this melancholy, bittersweet piece: many scenes are so subdued they aren't funny at all. The film's forte is MacLaine's detailed, touching performance, labouring under the indignity of being a National Treasure with no useful role to play, patronised by the President - her husband's former Vice - who views her as an embarrassing liability.
The prolific British director-producer team of Vadim Jean and Paul Brooks (interviewed page 10) gave us Leon the Pig Farmer and the horror flick Beyond Bedlam. Their third venture is Clockwork Mice, a lightly comic drama set in a special needs school: it's heartening to see that they're not just belting out thin pastiches of American genre pictures. Which is not to say there's no air of deja vu: an idealistic teacher (Ian Hart, excellent as always) wins over his wayward pupils - clockwork mice ready to hurtle off in any direction - with poetry and cross-country running, dead poets riding chariots of fire. But it's a bright, pleasing, energetic film with well-drawn performances, particularly from the kids.
In the final third stretch the screenplay goes haywire like one of its mice: it seems perverse to keep insisting on one boy's obsession with the London-Brighton line then have him run off on the Mid Hants railway, even given that steam trains are so much more picturesque than InterCities. It was a big mistake, too, to kill off a principal character and then scrape together a feel-good finale: the last, would-be uplifting sequence doesn't make any sense. A rigorous script editor is recommended next time round.
Oliver Twist's workhouse had the right philosophy for dealing with errant children: keep the horrors in line with a strict regimen of floggings and thin gruel (no seconds). We're a long way from correct political thinking: released in 1949-50, David Lean's film attracted flack for Alec Guinness's outrageous Fagin. A long way from Heritage Dickens too: climaxing in a terrifying scene with a lynch mob, this film is cruel, dark and violent - even when Oliver hits a lucky streak with a rich benefactor the sunny scenes are flecked with thick shadows. Oliver Twist launches a season highlighting film soundtracks and its music is by Arnold Bax.