Film: High seas, low depths

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The Independent Culture




Half-term holidays have become the film distributors' dumping- ground. How else do you explain the stultifying junk they've put out this week? If offences against intelligence were punishable by law, then three of this week's movies would be sent down for life. While free of anything actively offensive, Robert Young's Captain Jack had me squirming within five minutes. This could be to do with its proudly parochial cheeriness, its grating whimsicality, or maybe just the overriding impression of a shocking waste of the film-maker's time, and yours.

For the record, it's the tale of a grizzled sea-dog, the titular Captain Jack (Bob Hoskins), who keeps an old tub moored in Whitby harbour and rants to anyone who'll listen about the exploits of Captain Scoresby, who sailed from the Yorkshire port to the Arctic in the 18th century.

Determined to commemorate his hero by retracing his voyage, Jack recruits an unlikely crew, including an Aussie drifter (Peter McDonald), a ditzy local lass (Sadie Frost), and two bickering sisters (Anna Massey and Gemma Jones). Defying the veto of a marine safety inspector, they set sail on their perilous quest, oblivious to the heaving depths of lousy writing and limp jokes.

"I just can't believe the stuff comin' out my mouth," says Frost. Neither could I. Is this intended for that nebulous genre "family entertainment"? If so, I pity the family that would be entertained by it. Robert Young's millpond-flat direction comes as no surprise after his previous Fierce Creatures, but one expected better things of screenwriter Jack (Bar Mitzvah Boy) Rosenthal. Essentially it's a film for people who fall about on hearing the word "bugger" spoken in a broad Yorkshire accent.

Warner Bros' animated adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I doesn't do much to lift the spirits, but at least it's graced by a handful of good tunes. Based on the Oscar-winning film of 1956, it centres upon the clash between a feisty British schoolma'am (voiced by Miranda Richardson) and the benignly despotic King of Siam (Martin Vidnovic), who wants his children to have a Western education. The original's Technicolor splendour gives way to bland animation, while the plot is gussied up for Nineties tastes by the introduction of an evil sorcerer (voiced with campy relish by Ian Richardson), who plans to usurp the king.

Its effect is simply to prompt unflattering comparisons with Aladdin. Amazing, too, that 35 years on from Dick Van Dyke, Hollywood still can't recognise a decent cockney accent. OK, it's not all bad. There's "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance?" - tunes even this lot couldn't ruin - and kids who know nothing of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr might warm to the East-West comedy of misunderstanding. But why not just re-release the original?

It's with a due sense of dread you settle down for My Favourite Martian, a sci-fi comedy apparently based on a TV show from the Sixties. Americans love exhuming their television history, and the rest of the world must fall into line. This begins quite promisingly as the story of hassled TV reporter Tim O'Hara (Jeff Daniels), who has just been fired by his megalomaniac boss for a footling mistake. His luck takes an upturn when he happens on a crashed UFO and becomes housekeeper to its Martian owner (Christopher Lloyd), a discovery he plans to parlay into a career-making sensation. In the meantime, Tim has his hands full keeping his alien friend from frightening the locals and his scoop from being stolen by the TV station's queen bitch (Elizabeth Hurley).

Weariness sets in once you realise that the film has no higher ambition than trotting out a redemption-by-numbers plot and ripping off high-profile FX hits - Men in Black is stripped clean, while the presence of an all- singing, all-dancing spacesuit is a flagrant steal from Jim Carrey's hyperactive exuberance in The Mask. Daniels' regular-guy charisma works overtime to distract us from the recycled inanities of the material, and the pain of seeing talented performers such as Wallace Shawn embarrass themselves.

Christopher Lloyd has done this saucer-eyed loon so many times even he must be sick of it. How often have you seen the formula of a character strolling away from a scene of complete debacle and insouciantly remarking, "I think that went rather well"? Be assured: this will not be said by anyone emerging from My Favourite Martian.

What a week. A rotten seafaring tale, a rotten cartoon and a rotten space comedy. How about an Alpine Western to finish off? Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Inheritors is actually better than its distributors make it sound, a brutal twist on the traditional German Heimat (homeland) film that celebrates the integrity and fortitude of the rural community. Set in 1920s Austria, it concerns the repercussions of an ancient wrongdoing. A hill farmer is found with his throat cut, and while the locals mull over his demise, another outrage comes to light: the dead man has bequeathed his land to the peasants, flouting years of local tradition. Defying the foreman and the local gentry, seven of these peasant inheritors decide to manage the farm on their own, led by naive swain Lukas (Simon Schwarz), and his uppity girlfriend, Emmy (Sophie Rois). It isn't long before this new-found socialist collective has stirred up a violent territorial feud.

Ruzowitzky has a remarkable feel for the cheerless Protestant austerity of the rural lot, and uses chiaroscuro effects to convey the candle-lit gloom of the farm. One short scene has Lukas and co creeping tentatively into their late master's deserted bedroom, an expert compression of the fear and loathing in which the farmer was held by his workers - we never see the murdered farmer in his lifetime, yet his presence spooks the whole film.

The story, encompassing ideas of patrimony, class and and fate, unfolds with the steady assurance of a folk-tale, though I wasn't sure about the use of Satie's Gymnopedies as accompaniment. The ruminative melancholy of his piano seems thumpingly ill-suited to the savagery and melodrama that engulf the film's latter stages. Nevertheless, the sombre allegorical authority and Zolaesque realism of Ruzowitzky's film meld potently, and lined next to this week's oafish trio, it has a very substantial look indeed.