Cinema: It's Shakespeare, Al, but not as we know it

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For An actor's vanity project, Al Pacino's documentary-cum-home- movie Looking for Richard (12) is surprisingly watchable - an ego trip which can be enjoyed by the viewer as well as the starry participants. Pacino's wheeze is simple: he and a bunch of his famous and not-so-amous chums don their metaphorical pith helmets and set out to "explore" Shakespeare in general, and Richard III in particular, through a set of rehearsals and performances - a process which gives them all the chance to put on tights and act out some choice plums from the text, as well as to gas on remorselessly about motivation and subtext, have a nice little jaunt to Stratford and London, and generally muck about. The result: matter and impertinency mixed.

Their search begins ominously, with a lengthy quotation that will baffle the newcomer to Shakespeare who brought along a text of the play by way of a crib, since it comes not from Richard III but The Tempest, and is misquoted to boot (the word "rack" is replaced by "wisp", presumably lest anyone in the audience start thinking of roast lamb). But things soon pick up: Pacino scuttles rapidly on to a set of entertainingly dismaying vox pops which justify his contention that a lot of people nowadays just don't get the Bard unless he's carefully explained to them. So the point of his film is to act as a cine- matic addendum to that American under-achiever's end-of-semester salvation, the Cliff's Notes series.

Kevin Kline, Derek Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud, Peter Brooks, Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones, old uncle Ken Branagh and all are wheeled out to expound on the mysteries of iambic pentameter (which Pacino unconvincingly affects not to understand), in words that range from the helpful to the downright barking. All of these worthies are effortlessly outshone by a contributor who will be less familiar to the moviegoing public, the critic Barbara Everett, who makes the only observations about Richard III worth taking away and pondering. (Here's one: "Irony is really only hypocrisy with style." Gosh.) Other academics are made to took a bit silly by some wicked editing: Pacino seems to have all the cruelty required for making an unstuffy arts documentary.

Thus braced, our director and a crack team including Alec Baldwin (Clarence), Winona Ryder (Lady Anne), Aidan Quinn (Richmond) and Kevin Spacey (quietly superb as Buckingham) tackle a handful of key scenes, many of them shot with hand-held cameras in New York's Cloisters museum, most of them zappily intercut with rehearsal and other matter. They're handsomely done, and leave little doubt that Pacino could tear the hell out of the part, spittle flying in all directions, if he ever took a full run at it for the big screen. It seems likely that Cliff's Notes readers will leave the cinema more baffled than ever as to what the thing is all about, but for anyone who can take pleasure in the sight of well-paid professionals on a busman's holiday, Looking for Richard has all the pleasure of a juicy eavesdrop.

Dear friends warned me in advance that Ken Loach's latest, Carla's Song (15), was coarsely didactic stuff - an unintentional parody of an engaged film, in which all the characters sit around earnestly lecturing each other about Sandinista land-reform policies, the history of CIA counter-insurgency techniques in Latin America and other crowd-pleasing topics. I can't altogether go along with this slur. Perhaps a shade wobbly in parts, Loach's work is none the less crammed with all manner of original and nagging life, and even its preachiest moments tend to have an unexpected spin. Those allegedly tiresome land-reform speeches, for example, are translated into faltering English for us by our Nicaraguan heroine Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), who unostentatiously weeps as she speaks. Her tears aren't mentioned in the published version of Paul Laverty's script: it's easy to believe that Ms Cabezas was simply overcome by the nobility of her speech when the time came to shoot. In any case, it's really quite moving.

Carla's Song falls into two roughly equal sections. In the first, and more persuasively textured half, a poetic Glaswegian bus driver, name of George (the admirable Robert Carlyle, his face so gently reflective here that he's almost unrecognisable as the psycho Begbie from Trainspotting), gradually falls in love with the exiled and profoundly troubled Carla, after rescuing her from a nasty encounter with a ticket inspector. (Loach has a lynx eye for the minutiae of petty tyranny, as well as the world- historical kind: look out for the moment when the inspector adjusts his crotch area.) George goes on trying to rescue her - finding her a room, dragging her to hospital after she slashes her wrists, and finally taking her back to Nicaragua in search of her old lover Antonio, a victim of the Contras. The second part of the movie, which holds the film's political grit, is a lot less certain. Some of the personal narrative loses steam, and gives way to socialist travelogue, too sunny even for a sympathiser. George, so blissed out by revolutionary Nicaragua that he's stripped of his former pranksterish wit, becomes every inch the goofy tourist on a literal busman's holiday, bumbling his way through encounters with cheery peasants and the cutest troop of commandos you've ever clapped eyes on. Then the idyll curdles: the Contras start to mortar his new friends, he has a run-in with a reformed CIA goon (a telling, if stagey appearance from Scott Glenn), and he and Carla find out what's really happened to Antonio. Despite some tough talk about fear so intense that it provokes loss of sphincter control, Carla's Song is stronger on charm than threat. At the mild risk of sounding perverse, its cardinal flaw might actually lie in not being didactic enough - in not telling its target viewers much more than we already know, knee-jerk pinkos that we are.

There's a sequence in Ron Howard's Ransom (15) which brings the movie perilously close to the edge of actually being about something more than killing a couple of hours: over a mobile- phone link, the kidnapping bad guy (Gary Sinise) starts to lecture his rich blackmailee (Mel Gibson) about the Morlocks and the Eloi from HG Wells's The Time Machine: Gibson, a millionaire airline boss, is one of the effete, betoga'd, grape-chewing Eloi, while his antagonist, a bent New York cop, has risen up from the savage yet productive Morlock underclass to steal Gibson's son. Obviously, this little frisson of class warfare is soon glossed over, but while it lasts it makes a more interesting ruffle on the movie's slick surface than the ethical pseudo-question which is meant to make it posher than most: is Gibson right to refuse the baddy's demand for two million dollars in ransom money, and offer that sum as a reward for his capture instead? To twist a much-used phrase: Can't care? Won't care.

For all that, it's an efficient, well-made thriller, as is Michael Apted's amusing Extreme Measures (15), which runs pretty much along the conspiratorial lines of Michael Crichton's Coma, with Hugh Grant taking the Genevieve Bujold part and Gene Hackman in the Faustian-Frankensteinian role as a neurologist whose unorthodox search for a cure for paralysis leads him to torture and kill squads of homeless men, the naughty fellow. Since he launched his career on a tidal wave of fumbling diffidence, it's easy to see the appeal of a project like this for Grant: from the moment we first encounter him, as a brilliant young doctor running a bloody ER, he's every inch a take-charge kind of guy, barking out urgent and semi- comprehensible medical gibberish ending in the exclamation: "Stat!" (an expression which always summons up images of an ER for scholarly proof- readers, who race around in white coats with blue pencils and shouting: "Stet!"). Credit where it's due, Grant is likeable and even believable in the role, and manages to deliver a few choice bits of Brit wit - Tony Gilroy's script is clever, if fanatically neat and tidy - without gorging on the opportunity. Do you know what, this boy could go far.

Cinema details: Going Out, opposite page.