Film: Also Showing

A Bug's Life John Lasseter (U) n Living Out Loud Richard LaGravenese (15) n Pecker John Waters (15) n A Scene at the Sea Takeshi Kitano (NC)
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The Independent Culture
A BUG'S Life is the second greatest computer-animated ant-colony movie ever made. Disney, pitching more squarely at a young audience, can't manage to emulate the sophisticated wit and verbal finish of Antz; to put it another way, one film has Woody Allen, and the other one hasn't. It's a close-run thing, all the same, and the similarities between the two films are striking.

A Bug's Life tells the story of a would-be heroic ant named Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) who can't help being a klutz. When a predatory band of grasshoppers, led by the terrifying Hopper (Kevin Spacey), descends on the ant colony to claim a portion of their harvest, Flik sets out to recruit a band of bug warriors to protect his community. Instead, he mistakenly enlists a motley troupe of bug performers from a flea circus, believing they will repel the aggressors.

As in Antz, the film milks comedy and terror from the clever conceit of a Darwinist microcosm. Early on, a phalanx of ants is stopped in its tracks by a fallen leaf; one of their number quails at the obstacle, only to be told: "It's nothing compared with the Twig of '93." Seen from the insects' distorted perspective, the ordinary and everyday assume a massive, hyperrealist intensity: blades of grass appear as high and dense as a cornfield, while a dry riverbed looms as wide as a canyon. Best and most horrifying of all is the bird which, pursuing Flik, suddenly takes on the huge, snapping menace of a Jurassic Park velociraptor.

Indeed, the film-makers keep nudging us with quotations from other movies; the basic premise is a nod to The Seven Samurai, while the spectacle of grasshoppers flying in formation towards the ant colony irresistibly recalls the helicopter gunships in Apocalypse Now.

Directed by the team (John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton) who made Toy Story, the film is also notable for a cast that makes the most of its arch, anthropomorphic comedy. Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the colony's anxious princess, Denis Leary as a male ladybug with masculinity problems and the marvellous David Hyde Pierce as - what else? - a stick insect all bestow expressive life on this computerised caper. Even if second best, A Bug's Life marks a feat of imaginative know-how.

In the rueful romantic comedy Living Out Loud, Holly Hunter plays Judith, a Manhattan wallflower who eats alone in restaurants and reads The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Dumped by her doctor husband (Martin Donovan), and marooned in her Fifth Avenue co-op, she indulges herself in fantasies of social and sexual disinhibition. Things take an unexpected turn when she befriends her elevator man (Danny DeVito), whose own life is a muddle of bad debts and bereavement. Written and directed by Richard LaGravanese, the film is about urban solitude and the way people who were once invisible to each other can suddenly connect.

Hunter's scenes with DeVito are nicely played, and one feels grateful that the film doesn't force them together; such restraint is characteristic of LaGravenese, who with Clint Eastwood worked alchemical wonders on the base metal of The Bridges of Madison County. He based Living Out Loud on two Chekhov short stories, and it figures: this may qualify as the most melancholy dating movie ever made.

John Waters' new comedy Pecker is a shambolic meditation on art and fame. Edward Furlong stars as the eponymous Pecker, a short-order cook in Baltimore who happens to be a gifted photographer. His subjects range from affectionate portraits of his blue-collar family and friends to pictures of rats copulating in trash cans, a broad aesthetic not unlike Waters' own. Trouble starts when he is "discovered" by a New York art dealer (Lili Taylor), who then launches her bewildered protege on an adoring public. The experts call him "a humane Diane Arbus", but his girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci) remains sceptical of the acclaim: "I beg of you," she says, "do not become an asshole." Once town opinion turns against him, the film spirals into a gently anarchic parable as Pecker tries to protect his family and elude the greedy maw of American celebrity. Not quite the wigged-out festival of tastelessness one expects of Waters, but it will do.

I couldn't help noticing that Takeshi Kitano's A Scene At The Sea was made in the same year, 1991, as Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break. Both films share a fascination with surfing, though any further similarity between them is entirely coincidental. Instead of the magnificent lunacy of Bigelow's action thriller, Kitano's film is a measured portrayal of romantic devotion. A deaf-mute teenager finds a broken surfboard, repairs it and takes to the waves, watched from the shore by his endlessly patient girlfriend. She's also a deaf mute, so dialogue is in short supply; Kitano compensates for their silence with a camera of such watchful fixity you'd think he was making a nature programme. Considering his reputation for bloodthirsty mayhem - his 1989 debut was the unambiguously titled Violent Cop - this is a daring change of pace.

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