Animal magic

SPANKING THE MONKEY David O Russell (18) BEFORE THE RAIN Milcho Manchevski (15) INTIMATE WITH A STRANGER Mel Roberts (18) ASTERIX CONQUERS AMERICA Gerhard Hahn (U) CARRY ON UP THE BARBICAN Gerald Thomas / Peter Rogers (U),(PG)
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The Independent Culture
It is not, Ray suspects as he accompanies his father to the airport, going to be one of those vintage summers. No, he can't take up the chance of a lifetime, a prestigious summer internship at the Surgeon General's office; he must spend his entire vacation ministering to his chronically depressed and bedridden mother. No, he can't use the car either, except for emergencies (just to check, his father notes down the mileage before handing over the vehicle). The coup de grace comes when a toothbrush suddenly appears in his hand: the dog suffers from a gum condition and must be tended to weekly. Even the small consolations of hand relief (the activity delicately alluded to in the title of the movie) are denied him; whenever he retires to the bathroom, it's a racing certainty that the wretched mutt will come snuffling around the bathroom door.

Spanking the Monkey is a mightily impressive feature debut for its director, David O Russell (interviewed p8). Visually, it's a rough little film shot mainly on short ends (the bits left over at the end of a reel) scrounged from other productions; this may account partly for its highly-edited style, with lots of little insert shots, but it also gives it an unusual speed and energy. The comedy and mood-shifts are perfectly judged, as the mother (Alberta Watson, excellent) metamorphises from weepy frump into flirty vamp and Ray's nursing activities develop in unexpected and disturbing directions.

Before the Rain, another strong, if less successful first film from the Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski, is a triptych of stories exploring man's inhumanity to man. The focus, as one would expect, is on the agony in the Balkans (the central panel, set in London and drawing broad parallels with the IRA's former bombing campaign, is the sketchiest and least satisfying). The episodic format proves a mite frustrating in terms of allowing you to become involved with the characters and their stories, but it's a good- looking, confident, impassioned movie.

Mel Woods, the director of Intimate with a Stranger, has, the press kit blithely announces, never made a short film, commercial or pop video; she has never taken a film class, nor has she read an instruction manual. One wants vigorously to urge her to go back and serve her dues because this, yet another first film, is jaw-droppingly, eye-bogglingly awful. Jack (Roderick Mangin Turner), a star academic on the rebound from a broken relationship, has set himself up as a sex therapist to a stream of women who witter on in long direct-to-camera monologues about their dreary dysfunctions with a grim obsessiveness that only Los Angelinos seem able to sustain (note to the prurient: there's virtually no on-screen sex). "In terms of entertainment, it's like wall-to-wall Oprah Winfrey," Woods boasts. Exactly so.

The most annoying thing about Asterix Conquers America is not the fact that it's filmed in English but the Babel of regional accents: why in one little Gallic village, do some speak Liverpudlian (Asterix, voiced by Craig Charles), others (Obelix) seem to hail from South London and still more sport Yorkshire brogues? In the process, most of the national quirkiness is lost so that the French seem as Gallic as fish and chips. Still, this charming little movie is one of the most entertaining of the summer films aimed at the very young, with some sharp animation and amusing gags (although the more sophisticated adult humour will fly well above much of its audience). One wonders, too, whether a country where Pocahontas, Disney's diplomatic version of an Indian myth, has already run into trouble, will appreciate Asterix's jovial redskins (sorry, Native Americans).

Speaking of political incorrectness, a three-week splurge of Carry Ons begins tomorrow at the Barbican. It would be daft to pretend that the films are all gems, but Carry on Up the Khyber, screened for the press, did make me laugh (again). Look at Sir Sid (James), the British Governor of North West India, and Kenneth Williams' fabulously beturbaned Khazi of Kalabar exchanging insincere smiles, a masterclass in 70 different kinds of sneer; or the snap and crackle of Sid's exchanges with his sexually frustrated wife (Joan Sims). These scenes look back to the golden age of music hall; others foreshadow a later school of absurdist comedy: the famous dinner party, at which Sid and guests dine in style while the barbarians storm the gates, keeping stiff upper lip and curled pinky (and other members doubtless in their proper position) as the place crumbles around them, could easily be a Python classic.