FILM / Games people play: Super Mario on the big screen, Alan Rudolph's double vision and an English director's view of Sweden

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The Independent Culture
Super Mario Bros (PG). . .Rocky Morton / Annabel Jankel (US)

Equinox (15) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Alan Rudolf (US)

Benny and Joon (12) . . . . . . . . . .Jeremiah Chechik (US)

Three of Hearts (18). . . . . . . . . .Yurek Bogayevicz (US)

Sure Fire . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Jon Jost (US)

A VAST, cold-blooded creature, with ugly proportions, stiff lumbering movements and a brain far too small for its immense bulk: Super Mario Bros, the movie of the squillion-selling Nintendo game, is not an agreeable sight, and even its high dinosaur quotient may be insufficiently appealing to drag blase children away from their computer screens and save it from commercial extinction. Adults and the unaddicted will certainly find it a dull affair, since its pixel-thin characters are charmless and its humour is fitful. As for the plot . . .

The back-story, explained with insulting frequency, is that a meteorite hit the earth - to be exact, Brooklyn - 65 million years ago, and blasted all the dinosaurs into a parallel universe. There, they evolved into humanoid bipeds, then suffered an abrupt transition from benign feudalism to the tyranny of Koopa (Dennis Hopper, with a corrugated blow-wave hair-do and prehensile tongue), who now plans to invade our mammalian world and de-evolve us all back into chimps. But to pull this off, he needs a lump of rock possessed by one Princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis); and Daisy has a couple of friends, Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo) who are not only tough, but - what a stroke of luck] - plumbers.

In outline, this is quite silly enough to be engaging, but, as directed by the husband-and-wife team of Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, Super Mario Bros is a monotonous affair. There's little variety in the pace of the action and the poppy soundtrack, at once insipid and deafening, seldom relents. Successful pop fantasies, such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (in which Hoskins' acting was, as it were, in another dimension from the minimal performance he puts in here), require a degree of sincerity of their makers.

Super Mario Bros is too contrived even to qualify as decent kitsch - it may not be very clever, but it's all too knowing, and spattered with allusions to everything from The Wizard of Oz to Phillipe Starck; grown-ups can tick these off when the tedium becomes too great. What really sinks the movie, though, is the absurdity of its major premise. Who's ever heard of a hard-up plumber?

Alan Rudolph's Equinox is also located in a kind of parallel universe, much the same one he visited a couple of years ago for Trouble in Mind. Though the time period is something recognisably like the recession-scarred present, it takes place in the fictious American city of Empire, where the streets may be full of muggers and bag-ladies but all the interiors look like sets from an imperfectly colourised film noir, where the clothes and designs hark back to the Thirties and Forties, and where people all speak and act in ways that suggest they're mimicking actions from books and movies they haven't entirely grasped.

Out of this weirdly dated background springs a weirdly dated tale - the hoary one used by Plautus, Goldoni and Jim Abrahams in Big Business, about the twins who were separated at birth. This time, it is Matthew Modine who demonstrates the triumph of nurture over DNA by playing both Henry Petosa, a timid nerd who passes his evenings watching self-defence videos and plucking up courage to ask his best friend's sister (Lara Flynn Boyle) for a date, and Henry's identical brother Freddy Ace, a swaggering chauffeur cum gangster. The hand of Fate - signalled rather clumsily with references to the Empire lottery and so on - drags them indirectly together, while an aspiring writer (Tyra Ferrell) gradually uncovers their cryptic origins.

One of the recurrent sub-plots of Equinox is Henry's desire to travel - a desire he realises in the final reel, which is faintly reminiscent of the end of Blade Runner but otherwise remains baffling - and the film itself might best be regarded as a bizarre kind of tourism, a hallucinatory visit to a world which feels like the inside of a thriller yet lacks many of the usual mechanisms. In this respect, it's beguiling, and sufficently so to quiet nagging worries about what Rudoph imagines he's driving at with all these ponderous ideas about loneliness, destiny and dreams of leaving.

Amorous triangle number one this week is Jeremiah Chechik's Benny and Joon, in which a mentally ill young woman (Mary Stuart Masterson) wins the doe-eyed and somewhat less than bright Sam (Johnny Depp) in a poker game, and then is romantically won by him, despite the best efforts of her over-protective older brother Benny (Aidan Quinn). The course of true love runs rough.

Queasy material, but Chechik sets a doggedly light, winsome tone and sometimes manages to wring comedy from it. The film should prove diverting enough for anyone willing to indulge the notion that schizophrenia can be cute.

The screenplay for Benny and Joon was written by a former circus clown - a fact that might be guessed from Sam's vaguely Chaplinesque wardrobe and from his habits in the kitchen - he mashes potatoes with a tennis racket and makes toasted cheese sandwiches with a steam iron. (Doesn't everyone?). This strand leads up to the film's most foolish moment: after an indifferent display of the youth's intuitive clowning skills, Benny gushes to him: 'You could be the next Buster Keaton]' He could not.

Amorous triangle number two is Three of Hearts, in which Connie (Kelly Lynch) is so cut up by the sudden departure of her bisexual girlfriend Ellen (Sherilyn Fenn) that she hires a male escort, Joe (William Baldwin) to woo her, break her heart, prove that all men are brutes and so send her gratefully back to her ex-lover's arms. Her plot hiccups precisely in a way she could have foretold if only she'd thought to hire a video of American Gigolo: Joe, on the run from gangsters, falls for Ellen and decides that he wants a newer and cleaner, if poorer life. The violence is fairly moderate, the heterosexual bedroom scenes discreet and the treatment of lesbianism would not have ruffled Queen Victoria: why was this inoffensive trifle given an 18 certificate?

Jon Jost's Sure Fire is just what the world has been gasping for: an avant- garde tract about real estate development in Utah. (It is also alleged to be 'about patriarchy', which should set off a few alarms.) Much of the film consists of garrulous soliloquies, shot with static camera and recorded on sound equipment that is inadequate to the task.

Every once in a while, Jost lightens up enough to allow us such treats as fuzzily monochromatic shots of an open road or a red-lettered caption from the Book of Mormon. Probably the kindest description for an enterprise like Jost's is that he is preaching to the converted, though it's hard to imagine who would be out there putting coins in the collecting tray.

(Photograph omitted)