FILM / Hearing a pin drop: Kevin Jackson on Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way, starring Al Pacino, and the week's other releases

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Carlito's Way (18) - Director: Brian De Palma (US)

Malice (15) - Director: Harold Becker (US)

Menace II Society (18) - Dir: Allen & Albert Hughes (US)

Mac (18) - Director: John Turturro

Surviving Desire - Director: Hal Hartley

Carlito's Way boasts one of the most nerve-stretching scenes Brian De Palma has ever filmed. His hero, Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), is hanging around in a pool room in Spanish Harlem while a drugs deal goes down, and his instincts are screaming at him that something is wrong. He starts to improvise desperately, setting up a trick pool shot and gabbling a blue streak as he circles the table; the camera, meanwhile, jitters and scurries around the room as if it were just too wired and nervous to keep still. The sense of undisclosed threat mounts and mounts . . .

No question, this is a dazzling piece of technique. Unfortunately, there's nothing quite like it anywhere else in the film, save perhaps in a baroque chase across Grand Central Station, which, one American critic said, could be used in film school as a paradigm of action editing. (Quite so, though that's as much a weakness as a virtue. Its polish reeks of artifice.) Elsewhere, Carlito's Way is not much more than the regulation-issue tale of a crook - here, a Hispanic drug baron - who, despite trying hard to go straight, is repeatedly sucked back into crime.

If it offers a decided improvement on De Palma's recent form, that's partly because he would have to try hard to manage anything worse, and partly because he once again has Pacino's wit and tragic El Greco looks to pull him through the dull patches. In his droopy beard and black leather trenchcoat (we are in the mid-Seventies) Pacino slouches and smoulders through the film's two-and-a-half hours like a malcontent in a revenge tragedy - not exactly a thrillingly innovative performance for him, true, but highly watchable for all that.

Just about the only real surprise in Carlito's Way is Sean Penn's role as Brigante's corrupt lawyer Kleinfeld, a walking heap of cowardice, affectation and infantile greed who seems to be held together only by his tight three-piece suits. Penn takes on the part with such gusto that his performance borders on heroic self-effacement, especially when you consider the ghastly hairdo (frizz meets male-pattern baldness) he has to sport.

Malice sets off in galumphing manner. There's a serial rapist / killer loose in a small college town; a nice newly-wed couple (Bill Pullman, Nicole Kidman) have just taken in an arrogant, philandering surgeon (Alec Baldwin) as their lodger and you can easily spot the movie's first victim the second she walks out of class, because she's the prettiest one. It's all calculated to make audiences yell out 'Don't let him go near his scalpel]', but things are not quite what they seem. Or possibly they are. Or something.

Malice, in short, is an exercise in piling up the red herrings, and almost amusing enough to make the slog of following its twists seem worthwhile.

None of the cast seem to perform with anything approaching seriousness, Baldwin in particular leering and putting on the mad charm as though he had never heard of the term 'over-acting'; there's also a beautifully funny cameo from Anne Bancroft as a hard-bitten lush. Harold Becker, who directs, makes it a diverting enough ride for those happy to tolerate the preposterous neatness of its plot, for which even the props are pressed into working overtime.

Apart from its brutality, the most striking aspect of Menace II Society is the contrast between the inarticulacy of its characters and the eloquence of its visual means - it's hard to think of any film since Raging Bull in which so many prowling steadicam shots, slow-motion effects, fades, flashbacks and shock edits have been so lovingly squandered on a bunch of monosyllabic lunkheads. Like Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society has been made by a young black director - or rather, directors: it is credited to the Hughes brothers, Allen and Albert - who are scarcely much older than their cast, and technically it is a precocious piece of work.

It's less clear, however, that the Hughes brothers have anything greatly novel to address with their vivid style, since Menace II Society is dedicated to the unremarkable proposition that ghettos such as Watts are ideal breeding grounds for adolescent male psychopaths. The loose plot is a rake's progress, in which Caine (Tyrin Turner) is sucked into a life of extortion and homicide after one of his chums murders a Korean grocer; the security video of this shooting later becomes a popular home entertainment among Caine's peer group.

It all looks dismayingly authentic and sounds so too, but the price of this authenticity is a fair amount of monotony: these teenage boys have dedicated themselves so thoroughly to the task of becoming emotionless killers that they are, you could say, deadly boring. When a young woman or an adult comes on screen, the sudden jump in emotional register is startling. Consequently, Menace's claim to entertainment value rests on its intricately staged violence - which, for all the film's preachy tone, makes it awkwardly close to that stolen security video.

Mac, a directorial debut from the actor John Turturro, is set in more innocent days. It is the 1950s, and three working-class Italian brothers are trying to establish their own building company. Their guiding spirit, Mac, is played by Turturro himself and is based on the actor's late father, the intention being not only a private memorial but a more general tribute to the virtues of good building, honesty and the deferral of gratification. Turturro has tried to follow at least some of these precepts in his direction, and there really is a good deal in the film which is persuasive and strongly felt. But good craftsmanship in the cinema usually involves giving sharper pleasures than Turturro provides here, which means that Mac is often a bit too much like hard work.

At the ICA, there is a trio of short films from Hal Hartley, who in the last few years has, to splendid effect, been busy crossing some classic moments from Jean-Luc Godard with a gentle wit and eccentricity all his own. This slim three-pack is headed by Surviving Desire, which stars Hartley's regular Martin Donovan - the brilliant misfit Matthew Slaughter in Trust - as a Dostoevsky-crazed literature professor with a penchant for beating up his students. Decidedly vaut le detour, or, to translate Hartley-style, worth checking out.

(Photograph omitted)