Double trouble

also showing...; Blood and Wine Bob Rafelson (15) Normal Life John McNaughton (18) Irma Vep Olivier Assayas (nc) Swann Anna Benson Gyles (15)
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The Independent Culture
Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine do a great, rheumatic double- act worthy of Beckett in the new thriller Blood and Wine. They haven't appeared on screen together before, but they clearly know each other's rhythms - you get a sense of two cross-country runners bumping into one another after years of treading the same course. Their characters snipe and bicker like a crotchety married couple who are only staying together because the joint burial plot is already bought and paid for. Nicholson moves with a slowness that is somewhere between determined caution and arthritis; Caine sustains an ill-advised nicotine habit, teasing the emphysema that is destined to kill him. Death and decay permeate them, and the film.

Nicholson plays Alex Gates, a wine merchant whose affluent milieu barely conceals the debts and duplicities that are tearing him apart. He lives with his dreary wife, Suzanne (Judy Davis), who berates him for his financial inadequacies, and her son, Jason (Stephen Dorff), who cannot hide his contempt for his stepfather. Caine is Victor Spansky, who with that name should be a Bond villain or a rubber fetishist but is in fact a safe-cracker who may provide Alex with a way out of his domestic life. The pair are plotting to steal a multimillion dollar necklace, and they pull it off - except that Suzanne and Jason stumble upon Alex's escape plan and inadvertently end up with the necklace in their possession. That's when the rules change; Suzanne becomes hunted by her own husband. As images of marital discord go, this is one of the most trenchant.

The movie's thriller element is given only cursory attention, which would be fine if it didn't occupy so much space in the script. Blood and Wine touches on moments of painful honesty but is too distracted by its own McGuffin to ever connect with the themes that it courts. The lack of urgency can also be attributed to a distinct emptiness: it's called Stephen Dorff. Dorff spends all his screen time looking lugubrious, but is hamstrung by being utterly unable to suggest how he got that way. When Victor menacingly suggests taking a blowtorch to the errant Jason, you sit up in your seat - it seems like the only thing that could jolt Dorff out of his inertia.

If a casting director's mistake threatens to destroy the picture, the other canny choices are its saving grace. Judy Davis isn't on screen for very long, but she takes the brittle dominatrix she played in Hostile Hostages, pumps her full of booze and painkillers, and still manages to be vaguely sympathetic. Nicholson is nicely reserved but, by driving him to the point of combustion and making him teeter there, the director Bob Rafelson creates a buzzing tension that is accidentally diffused only once, when Nicholson is required to take out his frustration on the furniture. Any film which demands that this famously coiled actor starts smashing things up to convey anger may be said to have forfeited its right to use him.

Rafelson has directed Nicholson before, most effectively in Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. And while Blood and Wine doesn't immerse itself in its characters' psychology in the same intense fashion, there is a fine movie about crime and mortality buried in here somewhere. You glimpse it whenever Nicholson and Caine share the screen. In Victor's apartment, Alex catches sight of an oxygen cylinder lurking in the next room like a guilty mistress, and exchanges a look of embarrassed pity with his wheezing host. Later, in a scene which strongly recalls The Wages of Fear, Alex frisks his wife for the stolen necklace as she lies dying in a car wreck. These sewer rats are trying to clamber away from death - their heist seems to promise an elixir - but they're only speeding toward it in the process.

The terrible menace of suburbia hung over John McNaughton's debut feature, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and also brings a claustrophobic horror to his fascinating new film, Normal Life. Ex-Beverly Hills 90210 heartthrob Luke Perry swaps his quiff for a bad moustache as Chris, rookie cop who falls for Pam (Ashley Judd), an astronomy buff whose official profession is Bad Girl. You'd think Chris would consider ditching her when she arrives at his father's funeral on rollerblades. But no; he becomes a bank robber to support her. If this sounds like Serial Mom territory, that's close - McNaughton's sympathy for his tragic characters evokes the sordid comedy of John Waters, while still remaining faithful to the realities of the story. It can be cruel and unforgiving, at times echoing the films of Nicholas Ray and Abel Ferrara. But McNaughton really pulls it off, aided by Luke Perry's sad, muted performance, which measures an uncharacteristic nought on the narcissism scale.

Irma Vep concentrates on the chaos surrounding a remake of Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires, but quickly changes from a Day For Night-style film-within- a-film to something altogether more intangible. There are plenty of digs here at the current state of cinema, and in particular at so-called buffs who think that Quentin Tarantino and John Woo invented the motion picture. But the strength and magic of Irma Vep lies in its amorphous nature: at various points it is a satire of the movie industry, a homage to silent film-making, and a hymn to its leading lady, action-movie queen Maggie Cheung.

In Swann, Miranda Richardson plays Sarah Maloney, an author who comes to Ontario to research her new book about the obscure poet Mary Swann, and befriends Rose (Brenda Fricker), the last person to see Swann alive. This adaptation of Carol Shields' novel is curiously cold, with mournful violins complaining on the soundtrack in the places where genuine emotional depth should have been. Richardson is spiky and delightfully unsympathetic but her efforts are undermined by a silly whodunit plot and a botched attempt to have the biographer's life mirror her subject, a trick that also eluded Alan Bennett in his screenplay for Prick Up Your Ears

All films open tomorrow

Ryan Gilbey

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