FILM / A long way from paradise

Close to Eden (15). . .Sidney Lumet (US)

Sofie (15). . .Liv Ullmann (Swe)

Swing Kids (12). . .Thomas Carter (US)

Untamed Heart (15). . .Tony Hill (US)

Army of Darkness (15). . .Sam Raimi (US)

CAVEAT EMPTOR - let the buyer beware: this week the starrier, sexier films could just turn out to be pigs in pokes and you'd be advised to take a chance on the unlikelier stuff to see something worthwhile.

The distributors of Close to Eden have managed to dredge up a poster quote hymning the film as 'easily one of the year's best'. Look closely at the small print, however: the encomium issues from Michael Medved, whose muddle-headed polemic Hollywood vs Civilisation kick-started the latest anti-violence bandwagon earlier this year. It's unlikely that many British critics will share his opinion of Close to Eden; the film has even undergone a title change (it was called A Stranger Among Us this time last year), a sure- fire sign of a turkey.

In the sublimely silly Shining Through, Melanie Griffith posed, none too effectively, as an American undercover agent in wartime Germany. In the new film, she's a hardbitten detective who penetrates New York's hermetic Hasidic community, within which a murder and a diamond robbery have been committed. Gradually she is seduced by their archaic, isolated, but caring, sharing culture (the film has been seen as an urban Witness) and falls for the gentle Ariel, the Rebbe's son.

The normally reliable Sidney Lumet, working in his preferred genre of the New York cop thriller, has turned up a real dud (for the director on form, see Prince of the City, Dog Day Afternoon, Q&A). The fast, gritty, profane energy of those other films evaporates here as the camera drenches its idyllic world in rapt, golden light; Close to Eden doesn't come close to working as a thriller and its rose-tinted view of the Hasidim is an insult to the community (which didn't participate in the movie and won't ever get to see it) as well as to the viewer.

I had expected Sofie to be dull. This first film by the actress Liv Ullmann (a regular in Ingmar Bergman's work) is a period piece about a woman whose life is quietly suffocated by her loving, all-engulfing family in turn-of-the-century Copenhagen. And it lasts two and a half hours. But Sofie offers a much more convincing, clearer-eyed (but affectionate) portrait of a Jewish community. And it's surprisingly gripping.

Almost seduced by a raffish painter, Sofie is speedily manoeuvred into an arranged marriage empty of the sexual passion whose embers you can still see glowing in her elderly parents (compare the dishonesty of the arranged marriage in Close to Eden, where both partners are angel-faced beauties). But this is no tragic melodrama; Ullmann is generous towards all her characters, and they sometimes react in the most unexpected ways. Talking of his love of music, even Sofie's dullard husband is allowed his brief radiance, while her extended family is stuffy and stifling but also bathed in warmth, humour and love. It's a pleasure to spend 150 minutes in their company.

The director is helped by sturdy performances from a cast, including the excellent Erland Josephson (another Bergman regular), who are not Hollywood-beautiful in the remotest sense - they're lined, baggy, strong- featured, full of character. As Sofie, Karen-Lise Mynster has funny-face looks (she's also a comedian); initially she seems too old for the role, a good 10 years older than the character's 29, but she grows into it gracefully.

Ullmann's direction avoids the usual prolixity of literary adaptation. She passes, with a light hop, skip and a jump, over the big-event set pieces (marriages, births and deaths), dwelling instead on small, eloquent moments. Many scenes depend on look and gesture; there's no dialogue, or else just insignificant chitchat, with the real drama coursing underneath.

Expectations of Swing Kids were particularly low. It's another first film, and another social-issue musical from the Disney stable which gave us the dopey News Boys last year. (And Kenneth Branagh, who plays a Gestapo officer, took his name off the picture for reasons unclear).

This time, we're in Hitler's Germany among a group of recalcitrant youngsters who dance to a different drum: the decadent, 'nigger-kike' sound of swing. 'No one who likes swing can be a Nazi,' one of them says. You're primed to expect a simplistic equation of US pop culture with democracy and freedom - the good guys speak with American accents and dig swing; the bad guys haf ze German akzent and like oompah bands.

But the boast is quietly dismantled - one of the trio of hepcats becomes a doctrinaire Hitler Youth, another commits suicide, a third ends up on his way to the work camps. It's not exactly a Hollywood happy ending. And the script is subtle enough not to consign the whole of German culture to the side of the devils - a rare edition of Goethe's Faust hides fake papers for refugees and resistance fighters play Beethoven. Even Kenneth Branagh's silky Gestapo officer isn't a Donnerwetter, Du englisches Schwein stage Nazi; he was one of the millions of Germans who turned brown in the bitter aftermath of the First World War. The film doesn't cleave down the middle into good guys and bad; it has complex, modulated characters.

It's unsophisticated in other respects - the kids remain resolutely apolitical, saving a Jewish boy from Hitler thugs only because they thought he was one of them. And the final act of rebellion is very daft indeed. But still, an encouraging treatment of a difficult theme.

Back to one of the pigs. Untamed Heart boasts a great cast - Marisa Tomei won a surprise Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Joe Pesci's sassy girlfriend in My Cousin Vinny, Christian Slater is always watchable and Rosie Perez (the crazy, motormouthed girlfriend in White Men Can't Jump) is, well, Rosie Perez. The story could be written on a postage stamp: girl falls for boy-next-door, girl loses boy. Tomei is required to mope around, toffee-eyed, and witter on about lurve like some silly heroine of a teenzine photo-romance. Slater (uncharacteristically low-key) as her shy, withdrawn boyfriend is the same fantasy-figure as Ariel in Close to Eden - the sexually potent but pure and virginal male - and just as unconvincing. The director, Tony Bill, has a very patchy record: he made Five Corners, which, like this, had a strong, salty sense of a blue-collar neighbourhood and characters, but also the drippy Six Weeks, about a little girl dying of leukaemia. Untamed Heart is in the latter mould.

Finally, Army of Darkness comes from Sam Raimi, whose Evil Dead launched the moral panic before last. The new film is a sort of third part to the Evil Dead trilogy, with Bruce Campbell catapulted back to the Middle Ages where he saves the locals from the dead. There are some nice touches (I liked the skeleton army) but Raimi has focused on flip, not always very funny gags at the expense of horror.

(Photograph omitted)

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