Film: Also Showing

Meet Joe Black Martin Brest (12) n Sour Grapes Larry David (15) n Dobermann Jan Kounen (18) n Buttoners Petr Zelenka (NC)
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IN MEET Joe Black a sixtysomething widower, Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), has been getting intimations - doomy voices, ticker trouble - that all point the same way: his number's up. Sure enough, death pays him a house call, only he's not your usual Grim Reaper in cadaverous make- up and a tatty cowl. No: in Martin Brest's portentous romantic drama, death is played by Brad Pitt with blond highlights, a $3,000 suit and a vaguely beatific air. Death wants some vacation time on Earth before whisking Parrish away (the source is the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday), and it seems he's no fool: he chooses to stay with Parrish, a media tycoon afloat in baronial splendour in Manhattan, rather than with, say, a rent collector in New Jersey.

The old man then finds death - renamed Joe Black - making the moves on his favourite daughter Susan (Claire Forlani), who seems very taken with her father's mysterious new guest. So the question is posed: is love stronger than death? Hollywood is somewhat preoccupied with this subject. Last year's City of Angels and the unspeakable What Dreams May Come dabbled with romance beyond the grave, though whether this indicates a new-found spirituality or simply the age-old timor mortis is unclear. Either way, it seems to encourage an astonishing windiness in film-makers, and lamentable posturing in actors. Brad Pitt complained in an interview that his role defied research, but his impersonation of death as a stiff- necked, strangle-voiced hick who likes peanut butter is not the stuff to provoke anyone to fear and trembling.

The subplot concerns a dastardly takeover bid that will break Parrish's empire asunder, and at least it is a kind of plot; the rest of the movie snails towards the three-hour mark beneath the weight of a thousand Soulful Glances, Profound Silences and Ridiculous Speeches. (Pitt talking patois to a dying Jamaican grandmother qualifies as a low point.) That Brest has no sense of pacing is palpable, but a sense of mercy would have been nice. All that keeps boredom at bay is Forlani's almond eyes, Hopkins's tender gravitas and the sadly infrequent presence of Jeffrey Tambor as the tycoon's son-in-law, proving that his Hank from The Larry Sanders Show is no fluke: he has an actor's timing as well as a comedian's. Maybe they should have let him play Death instead.

Anyone who has ever stayed up to watch Seinfeld will discern the stamp of its co-creator Larry David in Sour Grapes, a feature debut that thrives on the same meticulous comedy of triviality. It's a tale of two cousins who fall out over a windfall. Brain surgeon Evan (Steven Weber) and sports- shoe designer Richie (Craig Bierko) take their girlfriends for a weekend in Atlantic City. Richie borrows two quarters from Evan for a last go on the slot machine - and hits the jackpot, to the tune of $436,000. Trouble begins when Evan asks for half of the loot. Richie, of course, won't give him a red cent.

What follows is a complicated yet neatly worked farce straight from the Seinfeld textbook, whereby an anecdote is steam-rollered flat beneath a ton of misunderstandings, running gags and cute observations. There are some good one-liners, and a tart mini-parody of Friends that's just about the funniest thing in the movie. Yet Sour Grapes hasn't really enough juice to get it home, and it also reminded me why I don't care for Seinfeld any more. It's not the relentless small-mindedness so much as the self- satisfied way the comedy is played out; it's like the bloke in the pub who gets laughs for his first few jokes but doesn't know when to stop.

Dobermann is, in at least two senses, a dog. Jan Kounen's cops and robbers movie trades in a hip, cartoonish ultraviolence that would make us go oooh if it hadn't been done to death already. Vincent Cassel plays the leather-clad outlaw Yann, aka The Dobermann, who with his deaf moll (Monica Bellucci) and a ragtag gang of psychopaths raids a Paris bank and leaves a trail of bodies. Out to nail him is a cop of such staggering moral turpitude (Tcheky Karyo) that you are immediately inclined to side with the criminal. Kounen directs in the frenzied, kinetic style of an MTV video, though he nods to other influences via a prominent display of two movie posters, Trainspotting and The Usual Suspects. Well, he can dream.

The six interrelated stories making up the Czech indie Buttoners are united by a curiosity with fate, coincidence and the atom bomb. The writer- director Petr Zelenka has a quirky affection for the way things link up and comment on one other, sparking magical connections. It gets by on a ramshackle combination of eccentricity and rude charm.


All films on release from 15 Jan