Cinema: Forgive them Mother, for they know not what they do

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The Independent Culture
Orphans (18)

Peter Mullan; 95 mins

Forces of Nature (12)

Bronwen Hughes; 96 mins

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (18)

Danny Cannon; 100 mins

Swing (15)

Nick Mead; 97 mins

Artemisia (18)

Agnes Melet; 95 mins

Eighteen Springs

Ann Hui; 126 mins

The night before the funeral of their cherished mother, the Glaswegian Flynn children gather in their local pub. Thomas (Gary Lewis) gets up to sing a tribute, choking his way through a Simply Red ballad. His siblings, Michael (Douglas Henshall), John (Stephen McCole) and Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), are only mildly embarrassed - it's precisely the kind of song the sentimental, oddly cordial Thomas would choose. When some of the locals start giggling and jeering, Michael piles in, and is stabbed, not ruinously, but enough to send him into a kind of shock. John is outraged, vowing to kill the man responsible, and the two brothers pile into the night. Thomas and Sheila go to the Catholic church to sit with their mother's coffin. Thomas, determined to do right by Mum and stay all night, refuses to take the disabled Sheila home. She sets off alone, furious, in her automated wheelchair.

Orphans, the first feature from actor and short-film director Peter Mullan, takes place over the course of this one night. Throughout, Mullan manages both the dramatic and the little, the poetic and the alarming. Those who saw Ken Loach's last film, My Name Is Joe, will remember Mullan playing Joe, a former alcoholic attempting the transformation from a death-to-all-men mode of living to something far more tender. Mullan's performance in that film was tremendous. There's little rarer on screen than a convincing study of change, of the bravery involved in swearing to correct oneself, and of all the subsequent internal exertion.

In many ways, Mullan examines the same kind of emotional material in Orphans. It's clear at the start of the film that two out of the three brothers are suffering from precisely the kind of cock-eyed assertiveness born from booze. Both make wild promises and odd jokes, their tears flashing and sagacity contorted, united in the thunder and flash of it all. Both must, and do, convincingly snatch sense at the last moment.

This in itself would be impressive enough, but if you also imagine near- apocalyptic scenes - like the roof of a church being dragged off and up into the storm-basted sky - you might get an idea of the secret scale and occasional surrealism of this ostensibly small, immediate film. We are taken from ill-lit alleys, across estates peopled by energetic children, to a surprise birthday party; there's a scrap in a maniacal publican's back room; a war of conscience in a van; a trip across the Glasgow docks on a makeshift raft; and ragged moments between an est-ranged husband and wife. Mullan's keenest accomplishments are his juggling of aspiration and fantasy with everything human and anxious, and his grasp on social insanity in a city and civilisation at a time of flux. This intelligence, this freshness, is worked over with accuracy by his actors, who find both simple action and complicated foibles in every scene.

Forces of Nature has Ben Affleck playing a dull writer on his way from New York to Savannah to get married. His plane crashes. Never mind - sitting next to him is Sandra Bullock, all midnight-blue eyeliner and ethnic shirt and kooky mystery. The pair head down to Savannah together, in buses and cars, Affleck more and more attracted to Bullock and Bullock just boogying and chirruping and dressing up and being gently brassy in a way that puts any woman who's ever just sat at home in a bad mood, refusing to make herself useful, to shame.

This, of course, is Bullock's trademark - mucking in while being eccentric and sensual. Nuts, but reliable. One of the boys, but tanned. It's bloody irritating. An unexpected finale apart, Forces of Nature is a pretty predictable road story. Much is made of the bad weather brewing as the pair head further South, suggesting the supposedly elemental struggle of the film - marriage versus driving across America with a spirit-raising moll in a pork-pie hat. Who cares?

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is the sequel to I Know What You Did Last Summer, a teeny slasher-flick that cashed in on the wild success of Wes Craven's Scream. I could be rude about John Hughes's Bratpack films of the 1980s. But movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink, while resolved to showing how to attach another bit of lace to the top of your socks, also looked at eating disorders, zits, loneliness and (mild) vandalism. Innocent days. The preoccupation in films like I Still Know ... is incredibly, depressingly computed - kill or be killed by a man who looks like Captain Birdseye, on a remote island in the Bahamas.

The whole film seems to be a vehicle for the breasts of its star, Jennifer Love Hewitt. They are pushed up and separated even when she's sleeping, and all her shirts have only two buttons. Hewitt (who looks like someone who is secretly rather practical and might give it all up to run a photocopying shop) sometimes tries to avert the camera upwards by crinkling her eyes in the manner of a woman hitting her boyfriend with a pillow in a feature about Keeping It Fun in Cosmopolitan. Despite her best efforts, the film is unprecedentedly gormless.

Swing probably got its cinema release because it stars the singer Lisa Stansfield, and at one point had Ringo Starr ear-marked to play a lottery winner. Hugo Speer plays a young man recently released from prison. His ex-girlfriend (Stansfield) is now married to the copper who put Speer inside, where he was taught to play the saxophone by a New York musician. (In a Liverpudlian jail? Strange.)

Creakily scripted, and far too heavy on the singing scenes, this film belongs on the telly. But Stansfield is very good, particularly in the talking bits, and will certainly work on screen again.

Artemisia tells the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, the 17th-century artist who started painting in a nunnery, and was originally championed by her painter father Orazio. Somewhere between documentary and (very) sketchy bio-pic, the film lacks the imagination and chutzpah its subject deserves.

The ICA's season of Hong Kong melodrama features some great work, such as Stanley Kwan's Red Rose, White Rose, and Ann Hui's Eighteen Springs. The latter, set in Shanghai in the 1930s, follows the sad affair between two office workers; it's a raging, precise piece of work.

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