Film - also showing: Even worse than a fate worse than death

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The Independent Culture
The General's Daughter (18)

Simon West; 116 mins

The Trench (15)

William Boyd; 93 mins

The Buena Vista Social Club (U)

Wim Wenders; 104 mins

A la Place du Coeur (15)

Robert Guediguian; 113 mins

LA Without a Map (15)

Mika Kaurismaki; 106 mins

Drop Dead Gorgeous (15)

Michael Patrick Jann; 98 mins

Sweet Angel Mine (18)

Curtis Radclyffe; 100 mins

Instinct (15)

John Turteltaub; 126 mins

In The General's Daughter, John Travolta plays a military policeman who is sent to investigate the murder of a (female) US army instructor in psychological warfare. She was the daughter of a beloved war hero, and so the pressure is on to sweep anything smutty under the carpet. But Travolta's snoopings uncover her gang-rape while a trainee at West Point, and her subsequent sexual junketing involving a string of male officers. Everybody Travolta sets eyes on is dodgy. The corruption, naturally, goes right to the top, and Travolta gets thoroughly stuck into a menu of show- downs.

The director, Simon West, seems to have thought he was making an issue- based film, the issue being women in the military. But it's an "issue" in the same way that murderousness among dons is an "issue" in Inspector Morse - it's a mere peg for what turns out to be a pedestrian thriller.

West films the rape in flashback, to a crescendo of strings. But you can't be simultaneously elegiac and horrific, and nobody with healthy artistic instincts would even dare to attempt it. Lyrical flashback in such a context is the last refuge of someone without talent (or guts). And Travolta is a sad sight. He has lost all his grace. He seems steroidal, super-dense, as if he were carved out of Spam.

Early in the proceedings, James Woods (playing the reddest of herrings) warns Travolta that what he is about to uncover is something "worse than rape". What? "Betrayal." It seems that at no point did it strike either West or his scriptwriter (a strangely slapdash William Goldman) that rape is betrayal - a betrayal of one's species.

William Boyd, the writer and director of The Trench, previously authored the outstanding First World War novel, An Ice-Cream War. The film details the life of a representative platoon in the 36 hours leading up to the first day of the Somme, a day which historian Jan Morris has called "the end, really, of the British Empire". We must never forget, and The Trench, impeccably researched, remembers very well. But artists have to forget a little, unless they are to become completely constrained by awe about their subject. And Boyd's literalism kills his film stone dead. It's almost incensingly unshaped and anti-dramatic, a teaching tool rather than a work of art. But we need more than a fifth-form history lesson if our responses to war are not to petrify.

This is a shame, because the cast is thrilling. Danny Dyer, Daniel Craig and Paul Nicholls give lucid, natural, gentle performances - Craig's turn as a beleaguered sergeant verges on a masterpiece. But they are lions led by a donkey of a script.

Wim Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club is a delight. Some years ago, the American guitarist Ry Cooder travelled to Havana to make a record with a group of legendary Cuban musicians. That record brought these men, now in their eighties, out of shameful obscurity and on to the world stage. The film, very quietly, shows how the global fraternity of musicians will always triumph over whatever history may do to them.

Wenders's Steadicam makes it all seem like a dream, which in a sense it is. Ibrahim Ferrer, Cuba's greatest singer, was for years too poor to practise his art on Castro's island, and it's heartbreaking to see him shuffling, astonished, down Fifth Avenue, with his disposable camera, just hours before wowing a hysterical Carnegie Hall - a gentleman and an artist, as they all are.

Robert Guediguian's A la Place du Coeur transposes James Baldwin's novel from New York to present-day Marseilles. It's a love story involving childhood sweethearts Clim (Laura Raoust) and Bebe (Alexandre O Gou), separated when Bebe is wrongly accused of rape. Guediguian is eager to promote how friendship can overcome all manner of social injustice. It's an uplifting film.

In LA Without a Map, an undertaker from Bradford follows a wannabe actress to Los Angeles. There, he becomes involved in all the inanities of Hollywood. The film alternately fawns over and sneers at Tinseltown, but cannot disguise how much it really wants to be pool-side among the players. And it features a cameo from Johnny Depp, who shows more animation in one twitch of his solid jaw than all the rest of the cast put together.

Drop Dead Gorgeous is a black comedy set in Mount Rose, Minnesota, where preparations for the 50th Miss Teen America beauty pageant are under way, under the supervision of former champion Kirstie Alley. Following in the footsteps of the Farrelly brothers, the film grosses out on the behaviour of the homicidal Alley and her toothy daughter (Denise Richards). It doesn't really have a sense of humour, but is sometimes funny, although too knowing to be truly rebellious.

Sweet Angel Mine has been hanging around, unreleased, since 1996. It stars the exhaustively uncharismatic Oliver Milburne as a young British biker who travels to Nova Scotia in search of his errant father. He finds instead a misanthropic mother and daughter living on a private island, butchering woodland creatures and nursing their grievances against men.

Oliver likes them, and wants to stay - can he fix their woodshed "in return for food" (aka sex)? Anna Massey, weirdly cast as an inarticulate granny, comes downstairs now and again to threaten everybody. It's all, all awful.

Instinct has it that years after disappearing into the Rwandan jungle, anthropologist Ethen Powell (Anthony Hopkins) returns to the US in chains, having murdered two park rangers who found him living amongst mountain gorillas. The film takes as inspiration Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael, which consisted of an imaginary dialogue between man and primate.

Hopkins gets to bang on about how we might all revert to a state of primordial contentment if we hung out with simians. It's sterile and conformist and unforgivably boring.

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