Babes in schmaltzland

FATHER OF THE BRIDE PART II Charles Shyer (PG) ANGEL BABY Michael Rymer (15) WITHNAIL AND I Bruce Robinson (15) KATIA ISMAILOVA Valerii Todorovsky (18)
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The Independent Culture
Father of the Bride Part II is a title that contrives to be even less inviting than that of the 1951 comedy, Father's Little Dividend, on which it is based, and so to say that the film exceeds expectation is faint praise indeed. Steve Martin exhumes the beleaguered paterfamilias he played in Father of the Bride I, here confronting a new double threat - his daughter is about to make him a grandpop and his wife (Diane Keaton) unexpectedly falls pregnant at the same time. There are no brides, but why bother with details?

The opening half hour is bearable (I speak relatively) and even occasionally amusing, as the film sends up its own rampant corniness. Martin delivers a mild version of his irascible comic shtick, with a stream of sardonic glances to camera and voiceover asides ("Hey, what are we, the Schmaltz family?"). We see him pumping iron, dyeing his hair ("Bitchin'!" he enthuses at the unlovely result). As a newly pregnant Keaton gazes dreamily out of the car at mothers with their adorable tots, a panic-stricken Martin looks out the window on his side and sees only fathers being bullied by their little horrors.

Like Parenthood, Martin's last sentimental paean to human reproduction, there's a kernel of truth in the film's successful comic moments. But soon reality checks out altogether. Massive second mortgage? Down's syndrome fears (Keaton's in her late forties)? No worries! Male menopausal intemperacy melts comfortably into broody euphoria, and we all snooze through the insultingly predictable last-minute hospital dash, synchronised parturition and close-ups of dribbling babes.

Angel Baby provides a different view of pregnancy: fraught, unsentimental and, needless to say, unlikely to end up at a multiplex near you. Instead the film headlines a season of New Australian Cinema at the Barbican cinema and regional film theatres. It's an unusual and worthwhile choice. The story - two bright young people with severe mental illnesses persist in their dream of living and having a baby together - sounds on paper downbeat and melodramatic, but edgy performances from the leads, John Lynch (Daniel Day Lewis's friend in In the Name of the Father) and Jacqueline McKenzie, and the vigorous camera work and imaginative sound and music track draw us into their frightening, magical world.

With its protagonist's magnificent disregard for the pettifogging facts, Withnail and I is resurfacing to mark its "10th anniversary" (it was first released eight years ago in early 1988). For the uninitiated, the baggy "plot" is essentially a series of riffs on the love-hating symbiosis between two out-of-work actors (not so much resting as near-comatose) living in spectacular squalor in Camden Town anno 1969: Richard E Grant's degenerate patrician (or, probably, pseudo-patrician) Withnail and his owlish, much put-upon flatmate, played by Paul McGann.

The quality of Bruce Robinson's writing exceeds his direction, which is on the functional side; the screenplay, by contrast, with its droll annotations ("Withnail is beginning to look like some minor character from a 19th-century Russian novel. Withnailovich. Incidental to the plot"), is a comic gem in its own right. Still, the film remains sharp, original, intelligent and at moments wonderfully funny, although its bleary trip to the Sixties must have seemed weirder and more exotic back in Thatcherland, and the antique sexual politics (no women to speak of and a homophobic terror of everything male from a belligerent drunk to Withnail's fruity uncle to a sex-starved bull) aren't wearing altogether well.

Above all it gives sobering cause for reflection. "One of the most original and exciting film-makers in Britain," blares the cover blurb on Robinson on the tie-in screenplay, but it's a dismal thought that he, along with too many other bright talents of the Eighties (Bill Forsyth? Michael Radford, who had to go to Italy to make last year's Il Postino? Alex Cox? the late Bill Douglas? Frank Clarke?...) have been unable to develop lively debuts into continuous careers.

In Katia Ismailova, a modern version of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the 19th-century short story that also inspired Shostakovich's opera, the murderous heroine is a typist who has married the son of her employer, an elegant but bossy novelist. Holed up in the writer's dacha to bash out her latest book, Katia falls for Sergei, the hunky slab of rough trade hired to redecorate the villa. It turns out that this is not all he's refurbishing, and when her mother-in-law discovers the affair it sets off a string of killings.

Ingeborga Dapkounaite's Katia bristles with a chilly resentment quite unlike the sweet and impulsive young wife the actress played in Burnt by the Sun. And the film itself is pared down and oddly detached. There's the sense that many of the most significant events are happening off-screen, and the camera seems less interested in the uniformly unlikeable characters than in objects like Katia's antique Underwood typewriter and the jigsaw puzzle that she works at throughout the story and which is finally seen completed in the last shot. It's commendably stylish but also a little dour and uninvolving. You feel it would vastly benefit from a Withnailovich.

n All films are on release from tomorrow

SHEILA JOHNSTON

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