THE LAST movie surgeon to make a big deal about his power over life and death was Alec Baldwin in Malice. When he was accused of "playing God" in the operating room, Baldwin denied it. "I am God," he countered. In Playing God, the LA surgeon Eugene Sands (David Duchovny) has no such delusions: he's been struck off for losing a patient while out of his tree on drugs. The suspicion that the clear-eyed, fresh-faced Duchovny doesn't look much like an addict - his one concession to the junkie demeanour is to skip shaving for a day - probably didn't bother the director, Andy Wilson, who must have thought it was Christmas when the X Files star signed on.
Visiting a scuzzy club one evening for his regular fix, Eugene saves a man's life by impromptu surgery on a gunshot wound. This good deed brings him into the orbit of a flamboyant gangster, Raymond (Timothy Hutton), who decides to put the disgraced surgeon on the payroll as his paramedic; that Raymond's girlfriend Claire (Angelina Jolie) also befriends him puts an edge on their association. The film gradually forces a dilemma upon Eugene: either he must throw in his lot with the underworld, or become a snitch for the FBI, which has him over a barrel for practising without a licence. To reign in hell or to serve in heaven? Problem is, as Eugene reflects: "Hell doesn't always look like hell. On a good day, it can look like LA."
Given that Eugene is plainly a nice guy, the audience isn't exactly racked with anxiety as regards his moral decisiveness, and looks for distraction elsewhere. For instance, it's hard to ignore the rock-star chic of Timothy Hutton's cheesy gold jewellery and flapping silk shirts, or the daft mockney stylings of his chief goon (Brit actor Andrew Tiernan, who has the further misfortune of playing a heavy named Cyril. Cyril!). I was also mesmerised by the cushiony lips of the newcomer Angelina Jolie, which are either a great natural beauty spot or a new development in bee stings. While the performances are generally pretty good, the director seems more interested in spurting around the fake gore than in probing character - there's a fascination in the sheer bloodiness of gut wounds that recalls (heavy sigh) Reservoir Dogs. On the bright side, Playing God never bores; Duchovny's languid tenacity keeps the film ticking over, and the rare sight of Hutton playing the villain lends tone.
Based on Gordon Graham's award-winning play, The Boys is a bleakly powerful study in male insecurity and violence. Having served a year in prison for assault, Brett (David Wenham) returns home to the dismal suburbs of western Sydney to find things have changed. He suspects his girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette) has been playing around in his absence, and suspects one of his two shiftless brothers, Glenn (John Polson) or Stevie (Anthony Hayes), of stealing his stash. Trying to keep the peace in the household's increasingly volatile atmosphere is the defeated mother (Lynette Curran), whose weariness is eloquent of the way she both loves and fears "the boys".
The director Rowan Woods and the writer Stephen Sewell never let us forget the rage that simmers just below the beer-swilling boredom: deploying complicated time-shifts, Woods flashes back and forward around the act of savagery towards which the film has been building. The acting has a rawness to back up his conception. As Brett, David Wenham occasionally wrongfoots expectations by suggesting a capability for tenderness, as when he comforts Stevie's pregnant, neglected girlfriend (Anna Lise). But nobody will be fooled for long: this is a portrait of unregenerate criminality. Cast stand-out is Toni Collette as the sullen, watchful Michelle, realising at last the danger of being around this family. The Boys is a dark and uncompromising achievement, though absolutely not what you'd call a great night at the flicks.
I'd never seen Tobe Hooper's notorious 1974 shocker The Texas Chain Saw Massacre until this week, and must confess I wasn't prepared for all the screaming that goes on. It's a simple but crudely effective tale of five teenagers who happen upon a remote farmstead and one by one meet a grisly fate at the hands of a cannibalistic hillbilly clan. The scene in which one of the victims stumbles into the clan's living-room - it's a grotesque museum of human bones and chicken feathers - is racked up to unearthly levels of horror by an insistent, keening sound-track. The drama is never in any danger of being sophisticated, though the sight of a terrified girl being chased through the night by a masked pursuer with a chain-saw is one of the purest representations of nightmare you're ever likely to see. All told, Hooper's film must have done more damage to the rural Texas holiday industry than anything aside from an actual visit to Texas.
The Parent Trap is a warning of Christmas movies to come. Revamping Disney's 1961 comedy, it's a soft-centred yarn about identical twin sisters (both played by Lindsay Lohan) trying to reunite their estranged parents after an 11-year separation, during which the sisters lived, unknown to them, on either side of the Atlantic. Dad is a Napa Valley vintner (Dennis Quaid), Mum is a South Ken dress designer (Natasha Richardson), and the business of getting them back together entails picturesque roams around upper-crust California and tourist London. If the outcome ever felt uncertain, one look at Quaid's rapacious blonde fiancee (Elaine Hendrix) should be enough to dispel doubts, though the two hour-plus running-time will surely have its diminutive target audience chafing long before the end.
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