Cinema Also Showing: What is it that makes Ryan so Meg?

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The Independent Culture
You've Got Mail (PG)

Nora Ephron; 120 mins

Titanic Town (15)

Roger Michell; 101 mins

Urban Legend (18)

Jamie Blanks; 96 mins

Perdita Durango (18)

Alex de la Iglesia; 122 mins

Painted Angels (15) Jon Sanders; 108 mins

The Cyclist (no cert) Mohsen Makhmalbaf; 75 mins

In You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan plays the owner of a small children's bookshop in Manhattan. She is skittish, and has hair the colour of runny egg. Whenever her boyfriend pops out, she e-mails a stranger with coquettish messages, largely about Jane Austen and pleasant shufflings though leaves. The stranger hasn't read much Austen, but makes up for it by being articulate about what a joy it is to be ankle-deep in labradors in a New York autumn.

Meg doesn't know that he is Tom Hanks, top executive of a corporate bookselling chain. He always wears brushed cotton shirts, which we automatically take as meaning that he secretly wants to settle down. Ah, but with whom? First, he must open his monstrous bookshop over the road from Meg's, and dump his egomaniacal publisher girlfriend.

Nora Ephron's remake of Ernst Lubitsch's patient, delightful The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is horrible. It lacks verbal wit or credible romance, and only pretends to feel disparaging about the horror at its centre: the big shop squashing the little shop. Not only is Ryan forced to go into liquidation by Hanks, she then has to fall for him. So, big business gets to screw you in more ways than one.

You've Got Mail thinks it's a romantic comedy because it stars Hanks and Ryan, who have been in love before, in Ephron's previous Sleepless in Seattle. In You've Got Mail, Ephron depends on us automatically finding them both delicious and compatible, no matter what her script gets them to do. So they can squabble, and be full of social conceits, and talk like people obsessed with their own ideas and nobody else's, and get to kiss (once) so feebly that they hardly surrender their lipsalve; and we're supposed to be grateful.

Ephron especially loves Ryan. She stares and stares at her, searching for the ambiguous nuance of manner that makes Ryan so perfectly Meg. There are lots of shots of her walking, with that combination of bolshiness and delicacy, as though always marching to a fanfare in a children's dream; and of the way she says No and immediately darts her eyes, like she feels cheeky for expressing a negative; but if you ask me, Ryan looks as hard as nails. All of this is very familiar to us; but it doesn't stop the film from being gluey with illogicalities.

Towards the close of the film, Hanks and Ryan slope about in a wistful- enough way; but there's a kind of shame leaking everywhere. They rarely look each other in the eye. Ryan has a cold. Hanks can't leave the house without the labrador. It's as though they know that they're letting us down. But in fact, we want them to attack each other with cigarette lighters. We want them to spit over how revolting it is to be let down by his cash and escalators and special deals, and bored by her principles, and Maurice Sendak back catalogues.

As characters, these two are utterly lacking in joy. They do not need love as proof they are living; they just need someone with whom to share the veal parmigiano. Ugh. Who wants lovers who eat, and mop, and file away any despair in their life and never make a noisy disgusting fuss about their heart? Who wants lovers who wear deck shoes?

Hanks is very peculiar in this film. This might not even be him at all in fact, but a replicant. His face is bigger and blander than before, and there's even more of that odd pigmentation around the mouth that makes him look like he's very recently had a swig of Ribena. I used to think this was his kindness trickling, because Hanks was once a great illustration of the word "empathy".

Titanic Town stars Julie Walters as a mother living in Catholic Andersonstown in Belfast in 1972. She is fearless and loud. Her husband (Ciarian Hinds) has an ulcer, and her children are used to the nightly raids, and the in-fighting, and the pandering to the IRA, and the being let down by the RUC, and the British Army in the flower beds. She hates that her children are used to it. So, she starts a peace group, and is lambasted within her community, who take her moves as criticism of the Provos. Roger Michell's film is unsophisticated (it tells a story, it ends, there is no inbuilt radar, no faceless demons) but very warm, with John Martyn's Solid Air album clucking and pondering in the background ("I don't wanna know 'bout evil, only wanna know 'bout love.") It is very good when looking at the relationship between daughter and mother, daughter and first lover, forceful wife and lonely, unawed husband.

Urban Legend is a rehash of Scream, Wes Craven's teen horror flick, which had its teenage stars manipulating all the stale rules of slasher movies. It was funny, and enormously successful. Urban Legend has a group of very attractive friends at university obsessing over modern ghost stories, and reviving a campus killer. There is an absence of thrill and dash, and the whole thing parodies horror movie cliches in such a self-referential, narcissistic way that the film almost ingests itself.

Perdita Durango, Alex de la Iglesia's first English-language film, opens with a naked Rosie Perez being licked and pawed by a jaguar. Perez, with her voluptuous jaw and urchin-suspicious eyes, plays a tough Mexican cookie meeting her match in the dissolute Javier Bardem. The pair kidnap a couple of American teenagers and drive about like maniacs. Inglesia loves all the superficial macho aggro promoted by the central couple; but the aggressive sensuality often tips over into loathsome assault. With the exception of the licking and pawing, this is an incongruously boring film.

In Painted Angels, a handful of prostitutes ply their trade in a frontier brothel. Life is nasty. So is the make-up, which is historically accurate, and reminiscent of restoration comedy. The British Jon Sanders's feminist western is original (no honky-tonkness, no romantic jabber about manifold wild America), but depressing and pinched. Its cast, however - Brenda Fricker, Kelly McGillis and Bronagh Gallagher - do give their characters ferocity and charm. It's a story of profound despair, grotesque couplings and a clumsy future.

The ICA's season of Iranian films headlines with Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist, which follows the attempt of an Afghani immigrant worker to raise money for his sick wife by cycling in a circle for a week. It's a quizzable, laboured film, full of indefinable, complex sequences, never quite finding a voice for the pent-up things it suggests. The programme also features work from the brilliant Abbas Kiarostami, whose first film, The Traveller (1974) opens the season, and was one of the last films to be made in Iran under the Shah.

Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990) and Taste of Cherry (1997) are also particularly good, but it's his documentary Homework (1989), which interviews schoolchildren and their rankled, sometimes illiterate parents, that must be seen.