FILM / Hard-boiled drama, soft-headed laughs

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The Independent Culture
The Public Eye (15) Howard Franklin (US) Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (U) Randal Kleiser (US) Folks (PG) Ted Kotcheff (US) The End of the Golden Weather (PG) Ian Mune (NZ)

The best scenes in The Public Eye come at the beginning. Rearranging his corpses into more pleasing contortions; telling the cops as they arrive tardily that he committed the murder to get the picture; routinely pipping the competition; quickly disguising himself as a priest (dog- collar improvised from a shirt cuff) in order to grab that sensational shot while administering the Last Rites - Joe Pesci's shabby, wisecracking tabloid photographer is a worthy addition to the long line of Hollywood's yellow journalists.

Based on Weegee, the famous shutterbug who immortalised New York's underbelly in the Thirties and Forties, he's a fascinating figure. But you can't build a film around a dark room, and so the writer-director, Howard Franklin, has spun a yarn in which Pesci falls for a mysterious night- club owner (Barbara Hershey) who leads him to gang warfare and a black market scam. The public eye turns private eye, and wanders straight into an off-the- peg thriller.

The film is set in the early Forties, just before the real-life Weegee achieved general recognition with his first book, Naked City - and even as his vision, stark, dark, low-rent, was being taken up by Hollywood in its wartime and post-war films noirs. The Public Eye is dogged by this paradox: a style that was once lurid, gritty, revelatory and ephemeral has acquired the patina of a period piece. And, the more Franklin lovingly recreates the visual and narrative qualities of noir - the hard- boiled protagonist, the femme fatale, the low-key lighting and odd camera angles, the nocturnal settings - the more his own film becomes an impeccably elegant, but academic exercise. Still, it's always a pleasure to watch Pesci at work.

Honey, I Blew Up the Kid is Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in reverse gear, and more listless than the original. Rick Moranis returns as the Heath-Robinsonian inventor - some good sight gags near the start detail his dotty gadgets. He has joined a shiny new laboratory where his ideas are constantly quashed or stolen by scheming colleagues (yep, another film pitting an eccentric boffin against corporate science). Then he zaps his two-year-old son with a beam that makes him grow each time he gets near electricity, until he bestrides the world like a diaper-clad Colossus. The special effects vary from the very good (in early scenes) to dodgy, with visible matte edges when the baby, now humungous, rampages through the main drag of Las Vegas.

Part of the reason why this isn't bigger and better than the original is the change of personnel. Shrunk was directed by Joe Johnston (who later made The Rocketeer) with effortless charm and sophistication; this time the driving seat is occupied by Randal (Blue Lagoon) Kleiser, a lesser comic talent. He doesn't have the same control of tone - at one point Moranis recites a pompous monologue ('America was built on the shoulders of people like me') and the film doesn't mock the speech, but the silly music suggests that it doesn't have the nerve to take it seriously either.

Partly it's to do with story-structure. Shrunk had a cunning two- strand narrative that spent half its time with the adults, half with the kids and their perilous journey through their own backyard. The magical transformation pitched them, as in the best fantasy literature, into an enchanted, self-contained universe. Now only one sprog has been translated, and he's a toddler who can barely talk - you never really see the world from his vantage-point.

Finally, the dramatic chassis is wobblier. In the first film, the shrinking reflected tensions in the family: the failure of the bookish, self-absorbed Moranis to notice his own kids. Here, the metaphor is weaker - the baby who takes over the household (his big, teenage brother resents him bitterly) - and is left unresolved at the end. Or, perhaps it's simply that small is beautiful, allowing an attention to minute detail that film is uniquely well-equipped to supply, and big just makes for a clumsy comic-monster caper: The Baby that Ate Vegas.

Hard on the heels of a 112ft toddler in the domestic disaster stakes must be a benign grandad whose senile dementia results in his house being burned to a cinder, his grandchildren almost being crushed by a speeding car and his son losing job, testicle and sundry other appendages. These are just some of the jollities in the week's other comedy, Folks]

Tom Selleck plays the son, a stockbroker who learns to renounce the material world and embrace family values (yup, another film about that), when he visits home for the first time in eight years and finds his father suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Soon he is sans eye, sans ear, sans ball, sans everything - progressively castrated by his blithely insouciant dad.

This is coarse stuff (the director is Ted Kotcheff, ex-Weekend at Bernie's) and if it turns out better than it should, that's due to decent performances by Selleck, a likeable comic actor who seems to have problems choosing his vehicles, and that fine veteran Don Ameche, who brings a degree of dignity to the befuddled father. But it all ends up (thanks to unusually blatant product placement) as an extended commercial for a well-known fast-food chain - not to mention, indirectly, for our own Community Care Act.

In The End of the Golden Weather, set in Thirties New Zealand, the 12-year-old Geoff grows up surrounded by so many eccentrics that his own luxuriant fantasies ought to pass unnoticed. He befriends a neighbour, Firpo, who is the oddest oddball of them all and tries to help him win acceptance. I watched the first few minutes in the dawning suspicion that I was about to witness a hideously misconceived disaster, but ended up warming to this odd little film.