Hope Floats Forest Whitaker (PG) n The Odd Couple II Howard Deutch (15) n Left Luggage Jeroen Krabbe (PG) n Blade Stephen Norrington (18)
THE TITULAR antihero of Hal Hartley's latest film is a weird hybrid of Tom Waits and Harold Brodkey. Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) erupts out of nowhere into the life of a gawky, unassuming garbage man, Simon (James Urbaniak), who supports his invalid mother and minxish sister (Parker Posey).
Beery, unshaven and lecherous, Henry has high hopes that his memoirs will be recognised as a work of literary genius; in the meantime, he drinks, screws, sponges off the locals and encourages Simon to write. Simon duly obliges and produces an audacious erotic poem that scandalises the world.
How much of this grabs you will depend on your taste for this director's peculiar brand of awkward American realism, and for the mannered, gnomic dialogue that's never spoken anywhere outside a Hal Hartley film. The eccentricity on show is too willed for my taste, and the combination of its hung-over light and depressive, thrift-store look inclines you to feel you'd much rather be somewhere else.
Traditional Indian patriarchy gets a thorough going over in Deepa Mehta's Fire, the invigorating tale of a New Delhi family's dramatic combustion. For years, Radha (Shabana Azmi), has slaved as chief cook and bottle-washer in her husband Ashok's restaurant as well as taking care of his wizened, bedridden mother, with little reward: Ashok has forsworn sex out of some mad project of self-torment. Into their midst comes Sita (Nandita Das), the new bride of Radha's brother-in-law, who is sufficiently cavalier about his arranged marriage to keep up a liaison with his Chinese mistress. Stifled by all this male complacency, Radha and Sita find a refuge in each other's company that blooms into something more passionate and dangerous.
The film's themes of personal freedom and self-realisation are persuasively embodied in the performances of Azmi and the younger Das, whose discovery that sisters are doing it for themselves seems even more righteous in the face of their husbands' lumpen inadequacy.
Hope Floats is a cry-baby divorce picture starring Sandra Bullock as a woman who learns on live television that her husband has been having an affair with her best friend. Without further ado, she packs up the car and, daughter in tow, heads back home to Smithville, Texas. Here she must negotiate the eccentricities of her mom (Gena Rowlands), who has a passion for stuffed animals, the resentment of the kid who wants her dad back, and the overtures of a hunky local carpenter (Harry Connick Jr), who admired her way back when she was high-school prom queen. So - fun for all the family. Director Forest Whitaker somehow spins out this gossamer stuff for two hours, indulging both the crackerbarrel sentimentality of the script and Bullock's picturesque but interminable maundering. Unlike hope, this thing should sink without trace.
Saddest film of the week is The Odd Couple II, reuniting Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as the divorced pals who 30 years ago raised the art of squabbling to glorious new peaks in Neil Simon's stage play (and then in Gene Saks' 1968 film). Now both pensioners, Felix (Lemmon) and Oscar (Matthau) meet up after 17 years to make a trip from LA to San Malina for the wedding of Felix's daughter to Oscar's son, get hopelessly lost en route and discover all over again why they can't live with each other. Matthau is still the genial card-playing slob, while Lemmon is still the querulous hypochondriac, barking like a seal to clear his blocked sinuses. Unfortunately, the comedy feels as frail and arthritic as they look, and any hope of recapturing the snap and zing of the original dissolves within five minutes. What's more, Lemmon says "fuck" twice, which is tantamount to hearing your granny swear. Painful to relate, but these two aren't an odd couple any more - just an old one.
Jeroen Krabbe, a familiar face in Hollywood's gallery of Euro-baddies, goes behind the camera for his debut feature, Left Luggage, an earnest drama about familial and religious values. Chaja (Laura Fraser) is a philosophy student in early Seventies Antwerp, and the daughter of parents who survived the Holocaust; she is caught between a mother (Marianne Sagebrecht), who refuses to remember, and a father (Maximilian Schell), who can't forget, scouring maps of the city in search of two suitcases he buried during the war. Strapped for money, Chaja takes a job as nanny to the Kalmans, an Hassidic family, and immediately bonds with the youngest child, Simcha (Adam Monty), who, after four years of silence, begins to talk - to the delight of his mother (Isabella Rossellini). Conflict is never far away, however, whether fomented by the family's high-minded paterfamilias (played by Krabbe), or the anti-Semitic concierge who presides over the Kalmans' block. The international cast do some really good work - Rossellini in drab duds and no make-up is outstanding, while Fraser is plainly a star in the making - but they're let down by a clunking script and some amateurish staging.
Based on a Marvel Comics super hero, Blade stars Wesley Snipes as a flying vampire hunter with a taste for fetishistic black leather and twanging great swords. Trouble comes in the shape of arch-adversary, Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), who isn't much liked even by his own kind ("You're a disgrace to the vampire nation, Frost"), but Blade - real name: Eric - is more than a match for his pointy incisors. The film has the crazed, kinetic intensity of a thrash-metal video, though none of its narrative sense. One for the arcade junkies.