Cinema: The spectre of blockbusters past

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THERE IS a ghost that haunts Brad Silberling's Casper (PG). Like Casper himself - dubbed "the friendly ghost" - it is a benevolent spectre. Bathed in a light the colour of green-backs, boyish but bearded, it bears a remarkable resemblance to the movie's executive producer, Steven Spielberg. It is the ghost of blockbusters past.

In both its virtues and vices, Casper has the feel of a Spielberg film. Produced by Spielberg's Amblin company, it is, like last year's Spielberg production, The Flintstones, a live-action remake of a television cartoon series (the television Casper went out in the 1960s). It is also a comic fantasia on such Spielberg subjects as childhood, belief and bereavement. Casper, foetus-like and with saucer eyes (even wider than the television Casper's), resembles ET. When the child heroine (Christina Ricci) befriends Casper, there is a laying on of hands that matches ET's iconic finger touch. Only - due to Casper's lack of a body - it is more a laying through of hands. When Casper, who is the ghost of a boy killed before his time, finds Ricci in his room, he squeals with delight: "There's a girl on my bed - yes!" The innocence behind the sauciness is straight Spielberg - sex as a prank. Like Spielberg's Always, the movie mixes schmaltz and spirituality.

For the first 45 minutes, you might even believe Spielberg was at the helm. The plot moves swiftly and economically. Ricci and her widowed father (Bill Pullman), a spectre shrink who specialises in teaching ghosts to "process their pain" and thereby rest at peace, are the new tenants of Whipstaff Manor. They have been sent there by an avaricious heiress (Cathy Moriarty) and her craven lawyer (Eric Idle) to exorcise the building. We cut between the ghostly capers at Whipstaff (haunted by a raucously malevolent trio, as well as Casper), and Ricci's school. Because of her notorious address she is shunned by her class-mates. Everything is set fair for fun. The gags are good, if repetitive (they often play on the terror evoked by Casper's attempts at friendliness). The plots are promising. And 15-year-old Christina Ricci (the spooky daughter in The Addams Family), shows she has the potential to make the jump from child to adult stardom. Her strangely intense features are softening into an off- centre sort of beauty.

Why, then, do we give up the ghost on Casper? A clue lay in a profile of Spielberg in the New Yorker last year, which eavesdropped on him chairing a script conference for the movie. A group of writers pitched in ideas and jokes. Like The Flintstones, Casper is a comedy written by a committee, and its amalgam of moods and narratives never coheres. The plots, instead of running together, fall apart. Greed- ily, the scriptwriters want to rope in an adult audience as well as a child one. There are references to Ghostbusters, Schwarzenegger and Citizen Kane, de- signed to fly over the heads of the kids and wink at their parents. A ghost who sees Pullman breakfasting cackles: "I love the smell of fleshies in the morning." The same line from Apocalypse Now ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning") was played with in Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers last week. It is hard to know whether ignorance, stupidity or cynicism, is the source of such grotesque incongruity in a family film.

The greatest fantasies have a rigorous logic. It is no coincidence that Alice in Wonderland was written by a mathematician. Casper abandons its premises for cheap thrills. Early on we are told that Casper cannot harm people. He is a ghost and, therefore, literally insubstantial. When Ricci shakes Casper's hand, she shakes thin air. Yet when she accidentally sits on him, he cries out in pain - for the sake of a gag. Later he ties up the laces of her school tormentors, and flies her on a tour of the Maine countryside (an attempt to ape Aladdin's "Whole New World" sequence). But if Casper can touch, tie and carry, why can't he hit and hurt? And if the film-makers won't obey the rules of their incorporeal world, how do they expect us to have a ghost in hell's chance of believing in it?

A pair of wizened, old ladies are the eponymous heroines of the documentary Martha and Ethel (U). This is a film about nannies - but don't scamper off to the nursery, as it's worth watching. Martha and Ethel were the respective nannies of the two film-makers, Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger, when they were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Both nannies attained the status of family retainer, and even - for better or worse - a kind of surrogate motherhood. Their backgrounds and characters are explored through their own reminiscences, and those of their charges and employers. As the shards of their century- spanning lives piece together, the film resembles a kind of Nanny Kane.

Ethel, a tall, thin, extraordinarily graceful black woman from North Carolina, is the easier to like. Her ever-present nurse's uniform belies a languid, gentle character. There is something of the performer in her too: a wide-eyed feistiness which lends sparkle to the plainest subject ("I wuz born in nineteen and two," she trills defiantly). The Ettingers talk of her warmth and supportiveness. Martha, on the other hand, was clearly a monster. A dwarfish German immigrant, she was taught strict Teutonic guidelines for child-rearing ("A child's will must be broken immediately"). She treated the Johnstone children as objects rather than people, running their lives with military precision and tying the girls' hair so tight it gave them headaches.

At first the film plods through commonplaces - Ethel telling us about segregation in the South; Mrs Ettinger revealing that when she grew up "there weren't a lot of openings for women". The commentary is often naive and sentimental, missing the nuances that we can see on the screen. For instance, though Martha has become a "much-loved" family friend, being transported by the Johnstones from New York to California, there is a condescension in the way they treat her that borders on contempt. We are shown Ethel and the chic divorcee Mrs Ettinger (who must have born in a suit from Saks of Fifth Avenue), living together, in a weird symbiosis. A daughter puzzles over what keeps them together, missing what is there for us to see: their mutual, aching loneliness.

The film is the story of two women who - like so many of their generation - forsook personal happiness. It touches on class and privilege, but never attacks them. It reaches a kind of radicalism, with Ethel's declaration "You don't have to birth someone to love them". But the movie never asks the vital question: whether this service, for all its civilised veneer, is a form of bondage. The film is a little too orderly and well-mannered. But then it was made by two well brought-up girls.

The rest is silence - or almost silence. Barnabo of the Mountains (PG), is a drama sparing of speech but full of striking images, set in the Italian Dolomites just after the Great War. A young forester is ostracised from the mountains he loves. When he returns, he finds the magic has gone. The movie has all the solemn deliberation of Antonioni, without much of the wit or intelligence. It is an odd mixture of the stupendous and the stupefying.

Cinema details: Review, page 68.