FILM / Those tomato salad days: Sheila Johnston on Leolo and the rest of this week's releases

Leolo (18) Jean-Claude Lauzon (Can)

Braindead (18) Peter Jackson (NZ)

Mistress (15) Barry Primus (US)

In the Soup (no cert) Alexandre Rockwell (US)

Wild West (15) David Attwood (UK)

Cup Final (15) Eran Riklis (Israel)

LEOLO could be described as a film about childhood, but that would be hugely misleading. Films about childhood mostly turn on a rite of passage, a halting progress towards insight and maturity, but Leolo is a fluid, free-form portrait of its young protagonist and his dirt-poor family. There's no neat resolution to its singular mix of burlesque, poetry and rude scatology.

Leolo is French-Canadian but convinced that he's really Italian and that his father is not his father - a round, red little man - but a round, red tomato which arrived in Montreal soaked in the sperm of a lusty Sicilian farmer. This absurd-sounding idea (like many of Leolo's other soaring flights of imagination) isn't sheer whimsy. It's an attempt to escape the hereditary madness, issuing from his paternal grandfather, that devours his family - Leolo's tub-of-lard mother and sister, his puny brother who is bullied by a neighbourhood kid and transforms himself virtually overnight into Charles Atlas, his horny grandfather and the sweet-voiced, authentically Sicilian girl next door on whom Leolo fastens his fantasies.

The story, such as it is, takes in an attempt to murder his grandfather with a complicated system of weights and pulleys (brilliantly staged), the things a boy with raging hormones can do with a piece of raw liver and the rape of a cat (which, kitty-lovers and Michael Medvedians will be pleased to hear, has been cut, none too delicately, by the BBFC). It's a vivid, visceral film, rat-infested and steeped in odours, most of them unsavoury, but also full of sudden, soaring dream-moments when Leolo plunges into bright blue water or a blaze of light. A sombre work, but also exhilarating, and one which serves notice of a real film-making original.

The New Zealander Peter Jackson is also possessed of a unique sensibility, thank goodness: Braindead is not the sort of splatterfest one would want to see too many of. There are no cat rapes - a remarkable omission - but the whole thing is very gross, with a delirious, surreal inventiveness that's also often very funny. Unfortunately the first special effect, a stop-frame animated killer monkey, is a dud, but the film goes on to excel in the gloopy entrail department: its trump-card is Bob McCarron, who designed the formidable prosthetics and also worked on Razorback and Mad Max II.

The 'story' concerns the undead in a Fifties suburb and involves a rabid mom who makes both Mrs Bates and Edna Everage look like retiring mice. Jackson barges through the whole with distorting wide-angle lenses, dizzy zooms, fast cutting and cartoonish energy.

Mistress is Hollywood-on-Hollywood, but several dozen notches down the totem pole from The Player: the film within the film is a low-rent independent project for which the power lunches take place at cheap fast-food joints, and each of the investors has his girlfriend earmarked for the leading role.

In life, the first-time writer-director, Barry Primus, somehow persuaded Robert De Niro to produce the movie through his TriBeCa company, and also to appear as one of the three backers. It must be his presence that attracted a blue riband cast: Danny Aiello as another investor, and the excellent Martin Landau as the cheesy has-been producer trying to put the finance together. Christopher Walken and Ernest Borgnine can be sighted in cameo roles. But the film is a lacklustre rehash of all the usual cliches - you know from scene one, where the would-be director (Robert Wuhl) is seen watching Renoir's La Grande Illusion, that his own opus, a little essay on creativity and suicide called The Darkness and the Light is foredoomed either to failure or to heinous compromise. And so it goes.

Movie-making at the very bottom of the pile is the setting for Alexandre Rockwell's far superior In the Soup, in which a young film-maker (Steve Buscemi), living in the scummiest of New York tenement blocks, hooks up with an eccentric gangster ('I've decided I want art to be an important part of my life') keen to pour money of dubious provenance into his first film. This is something called Unconditional Surrender which features a minimalist ping-pong game and 20 minutes of black leader - the inspiration of the aspirant director is Tarkovsky's Stalker.

The film-making angle, however, turns out to be just the shaggy-dog premise for a mordant, anecdotal ramble through the roach factory inhabited by Buscemi and the colourful oddballs ricocheting through his world - his landlords, a pair of mellifluously singing Italian wideboys, his drop-dead gorgeous but disdainful Hispanic neighbour and a sleazy chat-show producer (Jim Jarmusch). As the gangster, Seymour Cassel overdoses slightly on lovable twinkle, but this is a poised debut film.

The British comedy Wild West is a tame, disappointing affair. Its conceit is to show Southall as a lawless border town in the western tradition, but this is a dead-end place, without pioneer spirit. Zaf and his brothers have formed a band, but nobody wants an Asian C&W act and they're advised to go bhangra; understandably the boys want out, and their eyes are turned not east, to Pakistan, but west, to Nashville. The film's title notwithstanding, its message is that you still have to go to America for a sense of hope and endless possibilities. The young cast, which includes Sarita Choudhury from Mississippi Masala, is very engaging, but this isn't a new Commitments, partly because there's not enough music to carry the thing along, partly because the director, David Attwood, doesn't have any of Alan Parker's raw film-making elan.

Cup Final is not about football, although a passion for the sport unites an Israeli reservist fighting in the Lebanon in 1982 and his PLO captors. Under retreat before the advancing Israeli army, the patrol advances through difficult terrain, finding a lingua franca in English and, later, a shared support for the Italian team playing in the World Cup Final in Barcelona, which is glimpsed very briefly. This is a humane, decent film which doesn't take sides ('no winners in this game,' it announces), but also a dull one. We see a symbolic football game, a symbolic billiards game, the symbolic (and, note, on-screen slaughter of a chicken) in a plodding meditation on the futility of war.

(Photograph omitted)

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