CINEMA / Very cardiac, quite arresting

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The Independent Culture
IN Tony Bill's Untamed Heart (15), Christian Slater plays a busser in a Minneapolis diner who claims to have a baboon's heart. His dicky ticker was operated on in his childhood and a nun in the orphanage where he was raised spun him a yarn about the Lord of the Apes visiting. Within minutes, a baboon-sized metaphor is on the loose, swinging from scene to scene, beating its breast. The dialogue has an uncommon cardiac awareness. People say things like: 'You've got too good a heart.' Or: 'I'm going to give you my heart.' Slater, whose character is a sort of noble savage, living in a book-lined shack, is wild yet vulnerable - yes, an untamed heart.

If you find Slater, with his lank hair, lantern jaw, and gormlessly half-open mouth, on the primitive side, you won't want to bump into the heavies he faces. Nightly, in mute adoration, he follows home Marisa Tomei, a waitress. When two hoodlums try to rape her, the stalker becomes saviour. She begins to feel this tender-hearted foundling is worth more than all the heartless bastards she's been with. For all his monkey-heart, he tries no monkey stuff. Within the flip of a place-mat they're an item. And before you can say 'lay on the pathos' the hooligans are back for revenge. In hospital, threatened with a transplant, Slater vows: 'No one is going to take away my heart.'

Untamed Heart slumps into silliness and sentimentality, but there is always Marisa Tomei to kick it back into shape. Tomei's appeal is based on a rare mix of sweetness and wit, and lightning comic reflexes. As the lippy lawyer's fiancee in My Cousin Vinny, she had Joe Pesci for breakfast. Here her romance with Slater never turns sickly, though it's scripted for weeping strings, because she never turns serious. When he gushes about looking up long enough to spot a shooting star, she lets out an 'oooooohh]' that's a perfect balance of giddy wonder and gentle mockery.

We have been here before - The Last Picture Show, Diner - and so has Bill. His 1988 film Five Corners played out a similar urban fairy tale (with Jodie Foster as the beauty and John Turturro the beast) in the Bronx. Bill is a former actor, and his unruffled direction leaves the actors to it. Untamed Heart's greatest pleasures are in the girly chat between Tomei and the underused Rosie Perez, a waitress colleague - gossiping about who they fancy, and flaring into a napkin fight. Somebody should cast them as a non-Wasp Thelma and Louise.

George Sluizer's American remake of The Vanishing (15) is fascinating, but not the way his original Dutch masterpiece was. That was a pitch-black study of casual malevolence and stifling claustrophobia. This one compels as a gruesome example of Hollywood compromise. It's typical that it starts with the solution: a chloroformed handkerchief that the villain (Jeff Bridges), about to abduct a young woman, lays on his dashboard. In the first film, we didn't see this until the girl and her lover had been sketched in a few edgy scenes setting up the film's fearful symmetry. Hollywood, wanting a shock start, strangles the film at birth.

You can imagine the studio spiel. 'Our people adored the movie, Mr Sleazer - myself, I give subtitles a miss. A truly great depiction of evil - cigar? - but just a bit, well, dark. We're sending it to the feel-good department to see if they can cook up some love interest. And we've got the action-adventure guys working on a fight for the end. Love that pudgy prof] You'll be pleased to hear we've got Jeff Bridges for him. Don't worry, Jeff'll do a silly accent, sort of Nordic (it's in the contract). Oh, and we'll switch location from Europe to Seattle. It'll be Singles meets Misery.'

The film still describes the terror and mystery of an abduction. Kiefer Sutherland plays Jeff, whose life is halted by the disappearance of his girlfriend (Sandra Bullock) at a motorway service station. Three years pass, the mystery remains, and Jeff's need to know grows. He feels trapped at the moment he lost her, unable to move forward until he's solved the mystery.

He appeals to the abductor on television: he doesn't want revenge, just knowledge. Bridges' character responds. In the original film this heralds a tense series of revelations, with the villain playing cat and mouse with the young man, and us. But the new film's structured so we already know most of it.

The first film was about the mystery of evil. The second is about the power of love - a more comfortable subject. Jeff's second girlfriend, swept aside in the original by his obsessive quest for his lost love, has been written up into a part for yuppie princess Nancy Travis. When she tells him 'I don't know how not to fight,' we know she'll be scrapping to the end. Everything has been softened: the villain is safely nuts, not the frightening philosopher-criminal of the original, who was a close cousin of Hitchcock's evil undergrads in Rope. What's left is an average Hollywood thriller. What's gone is a perfect, chilling original. Quite a vanishing.

There have been snide suggestions that Kenneth Branagh took his name off the credits of Swing Kids (12) because he thought the film terrible. It may be more to do with his own performance. Branagh plays a Nazi officer, a well- meaning but blinkered placeman, and is as pallid as his pasty face. Still, he has the key line of the film, when he dresses down tearaway Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), a long-haired swing music fanatic of the type the authorities want stamped out: 'You don't have to be alone,' Branagh reassures him. The film suggests the Nazis loathed jazz and swing out of fear of individuality. We see the pull of the pack on a trio of hepcats: a crippled intellectual (Frank Whaley) who resists and suffers; and Peter and Thomas (Christian Bale) who join the Hitler Youth. Peter rebels; Thomas lets the Iron Cross enter his soul. The friendship darkens into enmity, while the film obliquely catches a period often tackled headlong in melodrama.

Together Sofie (PG) and Close to Eden (15) amount to an Encyclopaedia Judaica, but not to much fun. Sofie (Karen-Lise Mynster) is a Jewish woman in 19th-century Denmark battling with her background. The film moves through her platonic affair with a gentile painter and a loveless marriage to a dull Jewish husband. Liv Ullmann, directing for the first time, and forever dwelling on faces, never varies the pace; in the early scenes you want to slow-handclap. It's a loving portrait of Jewish life, but more like a museum than a movie.

Close to Eden also toys with ideas about tradition and assimilation. Melanie Griffith plays a cop investigating a murder in a strict Hasidic community and falling for a young rabbi (Eric Thal) - another of those very believable scenarios. Early on I had hopes that the film might muster some of the creepy cabbalism of Jonathan Demme's The Last Embrace. Instead it's a perjured Witness, with embarrassing dances, shot, like all the Hasidic scenes, in a golden glow; a script that's definitely not kosher; and a plot that goes to sleep even before we do.

(Photograph omitted)