CINEMA / Cowardly, but still comical

WIT FOR Woody Allen has always been less a rapier than a shield. His humour has a cool hilarity: the jokes help him keep his distance from other characters, the gags gag his feelings. So now, on a sea of troubles, Woody sets sail on a raft inflated with laughing-gas, seldom catching sight of the shore of reality. Manhattan Murder Mystery (PG) is the funniest film of the last year, but also a disappointment. It feels less like escapism than evasion.

The plot, with Allen and Diane Keaton playing a couple who come to suspect that their neighbour has done away with his wife, is manna for Allen's mania. Cowardice often fuels his comedy, and here it's given ample scope, as he and Keaton unravel a Double Indemnity-type skein of clandestine stake-outs, stalled lifts and furtive recces into the neighbour's apartment. The marriage is middle-class and middle-aged: a round of theatres, restaurants and occasional visits from a son in college - safe, but stifling. Keaton breathes in the whiff of adventure, while Allen, as ever, stammers on the sidelines.

Keaton brings the gaiety back to Allen's film-making after Mia Farrow's frosty self-sufficiency. Farrow hardly ever laughed; even Keaton's toughest cookies - those stuck-up Radcliffe graduates - ended up in stitches. Annie Hall is surprisingly staid in this film: more make-up (usually smudged), high-lit hair, smarter clothes - altogether less ditsy, more a lady who lunches. She finds a partner in crime-investigation in Alan Alda, as a middling playwright (and Allen's best friend, a traditional role) whose hint of complacency may have prevented him from making it big. Anjelica Huston gives an equally smart cameo as Allen's temptation, a brainy, self-dramatising author - oddly reminiscent of her father, John Huston.

They make a fine foursome, but their high spirits feel forced, the hysteria whipped up. Seeing such stars frolicking can seem like watching literary heavyweights play Scrabble. Given Allen's personal dramas, it's hard not to read a note of defiance in the relentless levity. You can hear it in the opening scene's use of Cole Porter's 'I Happen to Like New York' (with that truculent 'happen') and see it in the film's sign-off - a rare Allen grin. Allen's recent work has embedded foolery in a richer soil of emotional and ethical issues. But here he's abandoned reflection altogether.

Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth (15) is a very brave film - and a very bad one. There's no faulting Stone's ambition: to return Vietnam to the Vietnamese, spotlighting their suffering rather than America's. In Stone's first (and best) Vietnam film, Platoon, the Vietnamese were scarcely human. Born on the Fourth of July followed, with its shrill lament for America's psychic wounds. Now Stone presents the epic, real-life ordeals of one Vietnamese woman, Le Ly Hayslip (Hiep Thi Le): from 1949 to the 1990s, Vietnam to America, through rape, torture, unplanned pregnancy, dream marriage and nightmare divorce. Meanwhile her country is shredded by the French, the Americans, and her own divided countrymen.

Stone can never resist a sonorous narrator, and here Le Ly herself provides the voice- over-the-top. Her milk-soppy tones dribble through the story, washing Stone's ragged narrative down with several cracker- barrels of wisdom ('When we resist our fate, we suffer; when we accept it, we are happy'). Too often we're lectured: told, for instance, that 'You never moved up in Vietnamese society, only further in', when we should be shown it. Newcomer Hiep Thi Le can do all the required emotions - fear, joy, misery - but without any great depth or surprise. She's most convincing hustling, selling cigarettes to American soldiers.

Stone directs at a pitch of hyperbole that makes Alan Parker look like Renoir. He's best at battle scenes, at home with senseless conflagration, terror exploding out of calm, the volume turned up to a Wagnerian crescendo. But even here he gruesomely overplays his hand. In an early battle scene, he cavalierly switches the point of view between attacking helicopters and men on the ground, so that our confusion is a result of camera trickery rather than empathy for the victims. Things get even worse when Le Ly flees with her American soldier husband (Tommy Lee Jones) to America. Stone tries to convey American consumerism in crude shots of groaning fridges and supermarkets. And the best speech of the film, Jones's breakdown into retrospective remorse, is drowned by a drumbeat.

Fans of Jones's turn in The Fugitive will be disappointed by his shapeless performance here. He turns in a nice line in odd- ball persistence, wooing an initially uninterested Le Ly, but simple-minded sincerity is not his strong suit. And his character's later anguish is too thinly written for him to get into. Like everyone else, he's outshone by Haing S Ngor, the Cambodian doctor who made a marvellous debut in The Killing Fields. As Le's father, faced with one daughter raped and another working in a brothel, he wears such a mask of dignified suffering over his wispy Fu Manchu beard that for a few moments you feel Stone's whole reckless enterprise was worthwhile.

Tombstone (15) heads a flotilla of westerns in the wake of Unforgiven's Oscar success. It's not a great film, but it is a great crowd-pleaser. Director George Cosmatos and photographer William Fraker serve up genre staples with ravishing style: wagon trains, tiny on the horizon, in the glow of dawn; horsemen riding out to combat with the fiery half-crescent of the sun behind them; and, at the climax, lightning forking from the sky, as if to pin down the turbulent earth. The interiors of satin wallpaper, polished oak bars and sub-Rubens murals are equally lavish. There's even an elegant monochrome prologue, with rumbling Robert Mitchum narrating.

All these make a lush backdrop to the hoary story of steady Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and wild Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) saving the prosperous mining town at the OK Corral. Kevin Jarre's intelligent script, which includes the only repartee in Latin we're likely to hear this year, sticks to the facts, only going wrong when it imports a late romance for Wyatt. There are also serious problems of coherence in the film's final third, while the gunfight at the Corral is merely OK. But the leads are classy: Russell has an elegant authority; Kilmer an insolent hint of the young Jack Nicholson; and Sam Elliot (as Virgil Earp) a grey moustache that looks like a salt-and-pepper caterpillar. Watch out, too, for a granite cameo from Charlton Heston.

Two British films bring up the rear. The Hour of the Pig (15) is a high-toned period piece, set in medieval France, which seeks to mix intrigue with Chaucerian bawdiness in the true story of a pig standing trial, defended by an ingenu lawyer (Colin Firth). Leslie Megahey's feature debut has a starry British cast: Ian Holm as a libidinous priest; Harriet Walter a babbling witch, a renegade from The Crucible; Nicol Williamson, routinely sinister as the powerful Seigneur; and, best of the bunch, Donald Pleasence as a prosecutor, raddled with ambivalence towards the law. You'd think the prosecution of a pig guaranteed laughs, but Firth is flat, and Megahey's script and direction are stronger on historical detail than drama.

No stars, but more life in Bhaji on the Beach (15), another first feature. Gurinder Chadha's film about Asian women on a day trip to Blackpool is ramshackle and erratic, but there are deft portraits of the different generations, from tutting elders to strutting youngsters, and a strong central drama of a career-minded girl made pregnant by her black boyfriend. The film raises tough questions of tradition and assimilation, and rightly refuses to give any answers.

Cinema details: Review, page 74.

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