film: Also Showing

buena vista social club wim wenders (u) n the general's daughter simon west (18) n beautiful people jasmin dizdar (15) n la without a map mika kaurismaki (15) n drop dead gorgeous Michael Patrick Jann (15)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE IDEA of the director Wim Wenders (speciality: Teutonic gloom) going off to Havana to make a documentary about Cuban folk music (speciality: Hispanic exuberance) seems about as likely as Ingmar Bergman coming over here to make a documentary about skiffle. But, wonder to behold, the movie is a blast from beginning to end. In 1996, the blues guitarist Ry Cooder had assembled a group of near-forgotten Cuban musicians and made a Grammy- winning album called Buena Vista Social Club. So enamoured was he of the experience that he asked his pal Wenders to document on camera his return visit two years later.

Cutting fluidly between rehearsal and concert performance, Wenders presents an ensemble portrait of the greats of Cuban folk, among them the 92-year- old Compay Segundo, the 80-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez and the country's own Nat King Cole, Ibrahim Ferrer, a whippersnapper of 72. What the film powerfully, indeed movingly, conveys is the absolute love of making music that has united these supercool oldsters, the melancholy undertow being that the concerts - one in Amsterdam, one at Carnegie Hall, NY - are likely to be their last hurrah. Whether vibrant and forthright or intimate and tender, the music comes alive, affectionately accompanied by Cooder on guitar and his son Joachim on percussion. Havana itself is glancingly caught, both in the ruined grandeur of its architecture and in the pre- revolutionary automobiles lining the streets. It's a lovely postcard from a city where time seems to have stopped but the music goes gloriously on.

We're right back to earth with The General's Daughter, a remarkably unintelligent movie about cover-ups in the military. On an army base in the South, a woman has been found naked, raped and dead. Enter John Travolta and Madeleine Stowe to investigate, their task complicated by the unfortunate woman's identity - she was, it emerges, the General's daughter - and the authorities' insistence on proceeding "the army way". Galumphingly shot by Simon West (Con Air) and sound-tracked by the Bruckheimer-patented boom, the film turns that cheapest of Hollywood tricks, preaching to us about violence against women but none the less eager to show the murder victim pinned down and weeping in the starfish position. Stowe is wasted, while Travolta just reheats some Clinton good-ole-boyisms left over from Primary Colors. James Woods, as ever, lends a creepy touch of class, but his character puts a bullet into his brain before he can rescue this pathetic hotchpotch of A Few Good Men, prurient psychodrama and women-in-the-military tub- thumping.

Jasmin Dizdar's Beautiful People is an ambitious debut feature, offering a meditation on the Balkan conflict through the prism of a London-based social comedy. It opens with a Serb and a Croat scrapping on a London bus, then swiftly extends its compass to include an overworked doctor, the feisty daughter of a Tory MP and a BBC war correspondent.

The comically crowded plot proceeds in fits and starts, hampered along the way by some slack writing and uncertain performances, yet its ebullient, try-anything style gradually takes hold. Keen to subvert stereotypes, inter alia it presents the spectacle of an English football hooligan turning United Nations war hero - a one-off if ever I saw one. The Yugoslav-born Dizdar gets good performances from his cast, best of all Nicholas Farrell as the harassed NHS doctor and Linda Bassett as a peacekeeping ward sister of heroic straightforwardness: "You're here to heal," she tells a fractious patient. "So start healing."

LA Without a Map, adapted from Richard Rayner's novel, crosses a fish- out-of-water comedy with a hopeless male fantasy. Richard (David Tennant) is a disgruntled Scots undertaker who hightails it to LA in pursuit of an actress (Vanessa Shaw) whom he first met improbably wandering round a Bradford graveyard. Once in La La Land he makes friends with an ex-hippie musician (Vincent Gallo) and tries to divert his actress from the unhealthy attentions of a hot-shot director. The film takes swipes at Hollywood - vacuous showbiz chatter, trivial antipathies, the neurotic frenzy of ambition - yet fails to make its hero funny or interesting enough for any of it to matter. Judging by the funereal silence at the press screening, it might as well have been called LA Without a Laugh.

By cheery coincidence, the heroine of Drop Dead Gorgeous also deals with corpse disposal. Trailer-park tootsie Amber (Kirsten Dunst) works part- time in a funeral parlour and dreams of winning the Mount Rose Teen Princess Beauty Pageant, though she has her work cut out just surviving the murderous machinations of the competition favourite Becky (Denise Richards) and her psycho mom (Kirstie Alley). The director Michael Patrick Jann and the writer Lona Williams pay homage to the manic-grotesque spirit of the Brothers Farrelly, sniggering at anorexics and mental "retards" yet not remotely sly enough to get away with it. Dunst, who has one of the kindest smiles in cinema, is one to watch; the film, basically a sick-joke carnival, one to avoid.