FILM / Dennis without menace

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Dennis (PG). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Castle (US)

Just Another Girl on the IRT (15). . . . Leslie Harris (US)

Chain of Desire (18). . . . . . . . . . .Temistocles Lopez (US)

Liquid Sky (18). . . . . . . . . . . . . Slava Tuuskerman (US)

Forever Ealing. . . . . . . . . . . . . .A Season of Classic Comedies

Like many mainstream American directors John Hughes has gone incurably blandoid. Not that he was very risque to start with - but at least those Bratpack anxiety trips of the mid-Eighties (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty in Pink) had a spark of anarchy to them. Today, while more knowing kids' films like Super Mario Bros, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 and The Last Action Hero race around the edges of pop culture, Hughes just keeps chugging stolidly along that dotted line in the middle of the road. He makes Steven Spielberg seem degenerate.

Dennis looks like a Home Alone retread. Same naughty blond moptop - Mason Gamble, a pocket Macaulay Culkin with a similar penchant for mugging to camera. Same embarrassing cornball interlude (Joan Plowright as Mrs Wilson recites a nursery rhyme). Same cartoonish visual style, in which objects take on a malevolent life of their own - a globule of paint heading inexorably for Mr Wilson's burger, an aspirin missile aimed at Mr W's gullet (and filmed, amusingly, from inside his mouth). Same over-extended riff of pratfalls in which our small hero metes out ghastly punishment to a passing felon (including the same marbles gag from Home Alone).

But Dennis, unlike Culkin - and unlike his older British namesake - is a cute, well- meaning, innocent lad; the mayhem he wreaks is unintended. Nothing blights his sunny world, not even Christopher Lloyd as the cartoon crook whose villainy is never remotely threatening (Dennis is one little boy who won't be found tortured, sexually assaulted and murdered yards from his home). In Hughesville they still leave the doors open ('there are no robbers in our tEown'), the streets are spanking clean and the kitchens are a riot of gingham and scrubbed pine. It's a wonderful life]

THER write errorDennis's Pop is a nerdy, podgy John Hughes lookalike who goes to work wearing a plastic ID badge. Mom's a ringer for Doris Day, except that she has a job and a childcare problem - the reason, probably, for her son's unruliness. Dennis is jauntily non-PC, which has to be a good thing, given wimpy recent attempts to update other kids' classics. In Hughesville, boys will be boys and little girls with bows in their ringlets install powder rooms in their tree house. Nasty career women ('I don't have kids but I do have a life') get their due deserts.

The jewel in the film is Walter Matthau as growly, jowly Mr Wilson-next-door. We're meant to believe that Dennis is his sole remaining raison d'etre, that the grouchy old man secretly adores the pest, but Matthau tells us differently. He's sarcastic, knowing, ironic, and you're suddenly whisked a zillion miles from Hughesville when he drawls 'I can't tell you how deeply moved I am,' to the eager sprog, as if swatting a mayfly.

Leslie Harris's Just Another Girl on the IRT announces itself as 'a film Hollywood dared not make' - a defiant, even vainglorious boast given its decidedly modest achievement (political correctness can't compensate for artistic incompetence). Still, compared to Dennis, her loud, rough, energetic tale of 'girlz n the hood' is low on polish and production values but certainly drawn from life.

Chantel is a cocksure black student from Brooklyn convinced that she'll fly from the projects into medical school, but teenage pregnancy crushes her plans. Ariyan Johnson, the young girl who plays her, gives a prickly, deliberately non-professional performance. It's not just that she's required to deliver monologues to camera, a tricky film device that has beaten more experienced actresses. It's more that one feels that Harris hasn't made up her mind about a heroine whose surfeit of attitude more than borders on rudeness, and who is much less clever than we are invited to believe (this supposed straight-A student shouts down her history teacher on the grounds that oppressed African-Americans don't care about the Holocaust). The latter developments, which it would be mean to reveal, descend into absurdity but the film has an edge that lodges in the memory.

Two further efforts are devoted to that peculiar sub-species, the New York clubber. Chain of Desire is a loosely updated version of the Arthur Schnitzler/Max Ophuls classic La Ronde with several key differences. The spectre haunting the modern sexual roundelay is strictly physical - these good-timers trade partners in the shadow of Aids, not a delicate spiritual malaise. And, while La Ronde elegantly slips over the crux of each encounter, Chain of Desire dwells lumpily on every groping. It's a coarser film in all respects, despite an intriguing cast (Malcolm McDowell, Seymour Cassell, Grace Zabriskie from Twin Peaks, Assumpta Serna from The Fencing Master).

Liquid Sky, revived to flag its imminent release on video, hails from 1982 and looks like an ancient period piece. It's a no-budget sci-fi fantasy in which aliens storm Manhattan and batten on a claque of New Wave decadents. These performance-arty types loiter palely, yawning with studied, Warhol-esque ennui when not shooting up, bedding down or bawling at each other. A small, self-indulgent piece of mainly ethnographic interest.

Thank goodness for Ealing, whose grand old post-war comedies, including The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers and Whisky Galore], are revived throughout next month in new prints and, in these dog days of summer, offer one of London's keenest pleasures. The films are sometimes berated as cosy, parochial, Little-English, but the best of them - notably The Man in the White Suit and Passport to Pimlico - are sharp-eyed portraits of a fast-changing post-war culture on the edge of chaos.

(Photograph omitted)

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