Film: Also Showing

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the travelling players theo angelopoulos (15) tango carlos saura (12) all the little animals jeremy thomas (15) billy's hollywood screen kiss tommy o'haver (15)

AS SOAP operas go, Theo Angelopoulos's The Travelling Players, first released in 1974 and now being shown at the Riverside in a new 35mm print, has got it all: four hours of patricide, infidelity, soured friendships, chalk'n'cheese sisters, ruined weddings... Well, Greek soaps (I mean tragedies) have always had the edge, haven't they?

The Travelling Players is concerned with two tragedies in particular, that of Thiassos and Golfo (a pair of star-crossed lovers from a 19th- century melodrama), and the fate of Greece during the period 1939-1952. The two are, of course, related. A group of actors led by a gentle patriarch (Stratos Pachis) travel across the country trying to perform their little piece, but are continually interrupted by wars and civil unrest. This is a universe of fragments and the struggle is to piece together the play itself and the players' lives...

At times, the symbolism can be a little crude. And as the focus moves to the Fifties and civil war between partisans and monarchists, things stiffen up, with characters suddenly delivering monologues - to camera - about suffering and betrayal. Maybe in the early Seventies it was a relief for people to hear such anti-Fascist rhetoric and it does make a change to see Communism presented positively. These days, the Reds tend to be portrayed as the other side of the Fascist coin (as in Ken Loach's Land and Freedom). But it hardly makes for riveting viewing - it's cinema as substitute theatre, and it drags.

This is a shame, because it dilutes a heady brew. When The Travelling Players works, it's like nothing else, playing lovely tricks with time - a visual Slaughter House Five - "the real" so disjointed you see it afresh. Angelopoulos is a stately director,(when his camera's not being used, I imagine it's stored on a throne somewhere and waited on hand and foot, but overall his film is strangely democratic. Over four hours we fight to see the lives of our "heroes and heroines" close up - we are eventually smuggled a little nearer, but there's no easy intimacy on hand. We are ants, Angelopoulos seems to be saying, but ants have a right to live.

Fascism, freedom and that permeable membrane between art and life would seem to be the flavours of the week, with Carlos Saura's Tango exploring much the same territory. Miguel Angel Sola plays Mario Suares, an aging Argentine director determined to shoot a political film about tango and, just as importantly, fall in love. Having been dumped by his wife Laura, he's easy prey for Elena Flores (Mia Maestro), the beautiful mistress of the show's mafia backer, Angelo Larroca (Juan Luis Gagliardo) who wants her to take the lead.

The numerous dance routines - all stiff torsos and flailing hooves - cast a tense, erotic spell. The problem is Mario. We know this passionate, dream-heavy, Borges-quoting type too well - Marcello Mastroianni played him for years while Sauros himself, in films such as Carmen and Blood Wedding, has been there, done that.

The film huffs and puffs as though Mario's concerns were of the weightiest, but you can't help wondering what all the fuss is about. The backers say "keep the film simple", but Tango itself is hardly complex; he's an artist, they're philistines.

When Sauras decides to throw in the subject of Argentina's "disappeared", the effect is truly stupefying. The dance number has Elena scampering around as bodies are tossed into a pit. Imagine watching one of Ally McBeal's kooky fantasies and being asked to take it really seriously.

But after that, something strange happens. It's as Saura suddenly says, Yeah, I know this is all daft; ignore me! Angelo confronts Elena (who is by now having an affair with Mario) and the lines between them echo those between Mario and Laura at the start of the film. Love, it becomes clear, is what entangles us in cliches. And once this is established, ironically the characters (with only a few minutes to go) wriggle into life, the wicked Angelo in particular. This meta-narrative twist - a la The Usual Suspects - gives the film a sort of retrospective intelligence.

All the Little Animals, directed by the one-time Bertolucci producer Jeremy Thomas and based on the novel by Walker Hamilton, stars Christian Bale as a simple, animal-loving orphan, Bobby (he's 24, but acts like a nine-year-old), whose misfortune it is to have a wicked stepfather, "The Fat" (Daniel Benzali).

Threatened with the "loony bin" by "The Fat", Bobby runs away to Cornwall, where a fairy godmother appears in the form of Mr Summers (John Hurt) an old bachelor who hates humans and dotes on animals. This is the bit where the film takes off - if that's not too strong a word for something so drearily shot - because Hurt is in restrained form and Mr Summer's "story" is genuinely shocking.

Sadly, with the reappearance of Benzali any complexity evaporates and something quite brutish takes its place. As in all the best fairy tales, it's never made clear why good people marry witches and ogres in the first place. You know sex is at the bottom of it somewhere, but sex is a subject this movie just pokes at with a stick and then leaves for dead. "I'm a man - I just feel like a boy," says Bobby. Ultimately, the film is just as stunted.

Why is it that so many low-budget "gay" romantic comedies revolve around a gay man falling for a straight (the recent I Think I Do, last year's Kiss Me Guido), whether as sexual object or muse? And not just any straight, but a perfectly toned, gorgeous one, who initially rebuffs the overtures even if he eventually complies? Tommy O'Haver's Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss meekly follows the trend. Whether a masochistic or a cynical move (perhaps the aim is to flatter the straight audience into submission), it makes for ho-hum viewing.

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