Film: Also Showing

Bulworth Warren Beatty (18) n 54 Mark Christopher (15) n The Merchant of Four Seasons Rainer Werner Fassbinder (nc) n Practical Magic Griffin Dunne (12) n Class Trip Claude Miller (15)

SENATOR JAY Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) is a man whose time has come, and gone. Haggard with exhaustion and self-disgust on the eve of the California elections, he goes off the deep end and hires a hitman to assassinate him. Suddenly divested of responsibility, he starts to enjoy himself, proclaiming home truths to a black church congregation, exposing hypocrisy and falsehood in all quarters - it's like a political version of Tourette's syndrome. What's more, he delivers his sermons in the borrowed cadences of a black rapper, and swaps his suit and tie for homeboy street-gear.

Bulworth, written and directed by Beatty, aims to be a frisky satire on America's corrupt body politic, and it undeniably takes risks - something Beatty hasn't done in a long while. But it's an awful mess. Where his old friend Robert Altman might have shaped and pointed Bulworth's scandalous shenanigans, Beatty simply sprays around the farce like a Grand Prix winner's champagne. It has energy and nerve to spare, but it's too chaotic to be truly subversive. There's more than a whiff of condescension, too, in positing black American street jive as the white man's road to freedom. I suspect I'm not alone in finding Beatty's rhyming stylings pretty feeble. A white man can approximate rap - Tom Wolfe did so brilliantly in his novel A Man in Full - but on this evidence I'd keep any recording contracts on hold.

Mark Christopher's feature debut 54 is the second film within six months - The Last Days of Disco was the first - to hymn the notorious Manhattan night-spot Studio 54, though it plays more like a cleaned-up version of Boogie Nights. Shane (Ryan Phillippe) is a suburban Adonis who one night catches the eye of the club impresario Steve Rubell (Mike Myers) amid the jostling throng outside 54; he soon finds himself inside, patrolling the strobe-lit disco inferno as one of the bare-chested busboys who service the celebrity congregants and their hangers-on. Cue a mildly cautionary tale of arriviste gullibility, spiralling drug consumption and moral burn- out, all set to a familiar sound-track of Seventies dance floor stompers.

Phillippe's handsome but dim ingenu just can't command the film, and supporting turns by Salma Hayek and Neve Campbell are undermined by a clanking, sophomoric script. Mike Myers perfects a contemptible allure as the infamous Rubell (his laugh is the most unpleasant I've heard since James Woods's) but his club's reputation as Sodom-on-West-54th-Street remains largely unexplored. Where's the sex, the sweat, all that bad behaviour that we've heard so much about? Honestly, I've been to fifth-form bops with more erotic menace.

As part of a two-month Fassbinder retrospective, the NFT is re-releasing The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), an early and unmistakeable work by the laughing boy of the new German cinema. It recounts the overpoweringly bleak story of Hans Epps (Hans Hirschmuller), an ex-Legionnaire who has seen his dreams and ambitions dashed, mostly by women. Despised by his mother, rejected by the great love of his life, cheated on by his wife, Hans has fallen from bourgeois respectability by setting up as a fruit- seller on the back streets of Munich. Nothing, not even the minor success of his business, can rescue him from the profound depression that gradually paralyses his will to live.

Fassbinder films this family melodrama in a carefully detached way, leaving us in some doubt as to whether it's masochism prompting Hans towards his doom, or simply the director reasserting his nihilistic world-view. The film grips, in a morbid, crushing, hopeless kind of way, which is probably as much as the late director would have wished.

I'm surprised they let Griffin Dunne make another feature after the atrocious Meg Ryan comedy Addicted to Love, but plainly somebody in Hollywood likes him. His directorial reputation is in no way enhanced by Practical Magic, a fey and vaporous excursion into the supernatural starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as sisters descended from a long line of witches. All this means is that they get to inherit a beautiful old New England mansion, lounge about in cute plaid pyjamas and run into trouble with men, who, according to an old family curse, are doomed to croak should they get involved with either of them. Filming in a golden-syrupy light, Dunne seems to have little ambition beyond making his stars look adorable (not tricky) and hoping we'll have forgotten most of The Witches of Eastwick. Aidan Quinn, showing up late as a hunky cop, is a blatant mailshot to the target audience. A word to that audience: you don't need this fatuous, sentimental gloop.

Claude Miller's Class Trip is a quietly devastating study in childhood terror. Nicolas (Clement Van Den Bergh) is a shy teenage loner, stifled by an over-protective father and teased as a scaredy-cat by his classmates. While on a school trip to the French Alps, the boy soon falls prey to vivid nightmares of abduction and death, the cause of which is slowly - and traumatically - unearthed. Miller tightens the noose of his plot with such stealth that the denouement feels both shocking and inevitable.


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