The Real Howard Spitz (pg) Vadim Jean Mr Nice Guy (15) Samo Hung April Story/Fried Dragon Fish (nc) Shunji Iwai
THE HORSE WHISPERER is the sort of film in which you know that the characters have arrived at a crossroads because they arrive at a crossroads; where you can sense that someone's inner turmoil is lifting when the cinematographer's palette of chilly blues and greys is traded in for a harvest of shimmering golds and yellows. Robert Redford has directed this cautious adaptation of Nicholas Evans' novel, and selflessly cast himself as Tom Booker, a saintly Montana farmhand who does a nice sideline in equine psychoanalysis: he's a Mr Ed Shrinker.
Sadly, this involves not a really big couch and conversations about foalhood, but an immense amount of eye contact. Tom simply looks into the horse's eyes for a few months and communicates intuitive but non-bestial tenderness. Annie (Kristen Scott Thomas), a New York magazine editor, visits Tom with her daughter and the girl's horse, both survivors of a traumatic accident. Annie needs girl and horse rejuvenated, but Tom recognises her own spiritual malnutrition and spreads his healing hands a little wider, though if he was that smart he would advise her that putting Paula Yates and Damien Hirst on the cover of your magazine is no way to get your circulation up.
Of course, if Tom were to say a thing like that, then the film's myth that rustic folk are spiritually purer than their city-dwelling counterparts would be dispelled. This belief is conveyed entirely without irony. The ranch-hands are cleansed beings from whom all imprint of personality has been removed. The movie isn't much deeper. Emotional wounds are inflicted, then healed; conflicts are resolved against majestic scenery and burning skies which call to mind 1970s Marlboro billboards. The camera's adoration of Redford is exceeded only by its fondness for the accoutrements of country life; you know where you are with good, honest ropes and harnesses and lassos, as any moderately committed sado-masochist will tell you.
Each time Tom appears on screen, he wears a blurred halo of golden light, and even when he's not there, people keep saying things like "He's a good man" and "He's got a gift." Indeed he has: the gift of complete emptiness. He's the Stepford Cowboy.
In David Mamet's intricate thriller The Spanish Prisoner, Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) develops a top-secret formula, referred to as `The Process". His boss (Ben Gazzara) is demanding his signature to secure loyalty. Meanwhile, an enigmatic new acquaintance (Steve Martin) warns Joe he is about to be swindled. Who should he trust?
If this synopsis seems sparse, that's deliberate. On the one hand, to reveal any more would be to puncture a film which is successful precisely because it is airtight. But the plot's starkness is a key element, mirrored in the minimalist design and direction and in Mamet's trademark dialogue: clipped, severe, yet promising a hundred secrets.
You are never asked to care about Joe's predicament as the certainties of his universe are systematically eradicated. But then this is a playful exercise in twisting plausibility, and expectations, until they seize up; there is a scientific detachment about the way Mamet painstakingly explores every algebraic permutation of a scenario that ping-pongs between the Kafkaesque (shades of The Trial) and the Hitchcockian (the tennis motif, and Martin's imposing Robert Walker-style performance, recalling Strangers on a Train). While Mamet's paranoid fantasies retain a sinister edge, they have the vitality of new fairy-tales; they are about seeing the world over again, through other eyes.
The British director Vadim Jean has had a chequered career, but the family comedy The Real Howard Spitz finds him at his most assured. Kelsey Grammer (best known as Frasier) plays a failed crime novelist who turns to writing children's books, only to find his hatred of children a slight disadvantage. The film is sharp and sunny, and Grammer's gloriously crumpled persona is utterly charming, even in disguise - dressed as a cow, his udders have a grouchy, despondent sag.
You can usually rely on Jackie Chan movies for a cheap buzz, but Mr Nice Guy is a drab addition to the kung-fu clown's CV. The film is the usual tacky mixture of drugs, gangsters and women dressed like Pan's People, but something is missing: fun. Only one sequence hits the spot: a showdown on a construction site, in which wheelbarrows and cement mixers are enlisted in the fight against evil Australian drug barons.
Two new films by the Japanese director Shunji Iwai, and neither of them worthy of your attention: April Story is a winsome tale of unrequited love, with Takako Matsu making Bambi eyes as a shy undergraduate; Fried Dragon Fish is a (deliberately?) shoddy TV-style cop drama with kitsch embellishments. A slow week at the ICA, then.
All films on general release from