FILM / Among the basket cases: Beethoven (U)Brian Levant (US); Universal Soldier (18)Roland Emmerich (US); Peter Pan (U)Hamilton Luske et al (US); The Thief of Bagdad (U)Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger et al (GB)

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The Independent Culture
TO APPRECIATE Beethoven you probably need to be a dog-lover. Directed by Brian Levant, who gave the world Problem Child 2, this film about a St Bernard which wreaks havoc within an American family bounds up to you ingratiatingly, slobbering, panting and wagging its tail; you're all set for an enjoyable, no-brain summer caper. The dog performs diverse heroic acts (yes, he saves one kid's life; yes, he is faithfully devoted to a fellow-pooch) and makes the neurotic, anally retentive father of the household (Charles Grodin) into a mensch. It is essentially that old odd-couple buddy movie - the story of a neat and clean man whose life is disrupted by an unruly companion (as also seen recently in K-9 and Turner and Hooch).

According to the social stereotypes of movie lore, cat owners are loners (in the classic movie cat sequence, at the beginning of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, the failed, socially disconnected gumshoe Philip Marlowe vainly tries to palm off an inferior petfood on his disdainful mog - a harbinger of further defeats to come). Sometimes they're downright perverse: see Cat People - both versions - and Michelle Pfeiffer, deliciously baring her claws in Batman Returns. By the same token, pet dogs connote wholesomeness, companionship, domestic harmony and reassuring virile pleasures like brandy and pipe tobacco. That, accordingly, is Beethoven's job: to reunite an unsettled family and reinstate Grodin at its head.

The movie takes another of Hollywood's numerous recent swipes against working women - as in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, hiring childcare triggers a near-tragedy, and anyway the wife would much rather be at home for the kids when they come back from school, and spend her time starching her spotless broderie anglaise pillow cases (Beethoven's depredations notwithstanding, the house almost always looks spotless) and cleaning up doggie poo. Her character, and an obnoxious career couple who are among the villains of the piece (the film is a jerky, ill-connected series of story segments), continue the anti-1980s backlash and return to down- home values. You wouldn't mind if Beethoven were any good. But it's a dog (this joke is about on the level of those that you'll see in the movie), and to appreciate it fully it's probably best to be one.

Remember Donovan - mellow yellow, catch the wind, peace and love, gentle acoustic guitars? Well, Universal Soldier, another of those films loosely attached to an existing song title, has nothing at all to do with that, though it has a notionally pacifist message. It's a loud, crude vehicle for twin steaks Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, soldiers felled in Vietnam and revived by a government programme as robotic super-fighters with stunted intellectual and emotional powers (did anyone mention type-casting?). Incidental pleasures include production values rather above the movie's station, a vaguely loony motel owner and his mom, and an ear necklace.

Who would have thought a 1953 Disney cartoon would be sexier than this year's 'updated', live- action version? Next to Hook, Peter Pan is a real hotbed of intrigue and rivalry for Peter's affections: vying for them are a toffee-nosed (and -voiced) Wendy, a lagoon- full of languorous mermaids, a proud Indian princess and a curvaceous, flirtatious Tinkerbell who looks for all the world like a blonde Betty Boop. For children, the film will certainly retain its charm; for adults, it's a nostalgic trip into the past, before childhood became a colony of Hollywood (Peter is the only character with a US accent) and political correctness reigned - one of the delighful songs wonders 'what makes a red man red?' (and answers: the sight of a squaw).

From further back in the mists of history, The Thief of Bagdad emerges restored and revived from the National Film Archives. This gloriously kitsch oriental fantasy was made in 1939-40 - Michael Powell, one of the film's five directors, recalls listening to Chamberlain's speech in a coal bunker before going back to work on the picture (it eventually had to be completed in America, which pitches its mythic landscapes somewhere between Cornwall and the Grand Canyon). In Conrad Veidt - as the devilish Grand Vizier - it has a suitably Teutonic villain, although he is possessed of rather more charm and urbanity than his real-life prototype.

At the time, many critics thought the film's spectacle and special effects dwarfed the story, an Arabian Nights fairy-tale about a little thief (Sabu, winningly mischievous) who acts as the matchmaker between a young prince and a sultan's daughter. Alas, some of those very visual qualities look wan today: the colours have the slightly faded richness of an antique Persian carpet and the many effects, in particular the matte work, look their age. Technical advances have accustomed us to much more sophistication than this.

The enchantment remains intact, though, and today it's easier to discern the film's baroque, Powell-esque qualities - it opens on the close-up of an eye painted on an Arab ship (he says it was a ploy to distract attention away from the puniness of the boat) and the story is a set of variations on themes of spying, blindness and the theft of a magic, all-seeing eye: these are abiding Powell obsessions that culminated in Peeping Tom. While there are too many hands in the film - notably the large, dominating hand of the producer, Alexander Korda - for it to be seen as a single man's work, you suspect that it was Powell's poetic, adult, faintly decadent sensibility - note the Silver Maid, an automatic woman with a fatal embrace, and a sinister Blue Rose that foreshadows his later Black Narcissus - that steered it away from whimsy. There's a dog in the picture, incidentally, and Powell's comments on it in his autobiography, A Life in Movies, are refreshingly brisk and dismissive: it was, he recalls, called Nuisance, 'was a most unpleasant dog and bit everybody.'

(Photograph omitted)

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