FILM / Incestual proposal: Sheila Johnston reviews The Cement Garden, Once Upon a Forest and the rest of the week's new releases

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The Independent Culture
Half-term week, and the only new release with a youthful cast - Andrew Birkin's film of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden (18) - is definitely not for the young and impressionable. Incest, cross- dressing, masturbation, a dead mother buried in cement and a perfectly filthy kitchen . . . Where will it end?

The film opens artily, all odd close-ups and extreme angles, as Birkin sets the scene: a family living in indubitably the ugliest house in London, a square, utilitarian cement box set in a cemented-over garden in the scorched-earth cement urban wasteland of the Isle of Dogs. Dad is tetchy and remote; he enlists his reluctant 15-year-old son to help him cement over the garden's few obdurate remaining flowers. But Jack (Andrew Robertson) is more preoccupied by private manual pleasures, and, as he dedicates himself to these in the bathroom, his father keels over from a fatal heart-attack.

These Oedipal overtones gather a crazy momentum after the mother takes to her bed and quietly fades away - but not before telling Jack and his elder sister Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) that they will have to assume the parenting role towards their siblings. And, in the long, hot summer that follows, the family re- forms in a vacuum: Jack and Julie spar aggressively for pole position, then fall into each other's arms; seven-year-old Tom takes to going round in a wig and a dress and to playing mummies and daddies with his own best friend.

The theme is that our social and sexual identities are soon shrugged off when outside checks and balances are removed. But the film is laced with macabre humour, and is not the least moralising (it takes as its text a phrase by Constable, 'Nothing is ugly in the world'); after the visual mannerisms of the first 15 minutes, it settles down into an elegant and absorbing study of the orphans' strange, hothouse world. The four young actors, by whom it stands or falls, deliver impressively, in particular Robertson and Gainsbourg, wholly convincing in her first English-speaking role.

When Hanna-Barbera recently turned its classic Tom and Jerry shorts into a full- length feature, the result was a disaster: instead of beating the bejesus out of each other, as everyone had paid to see, the erstwhile arch-enemies suddenly took to cosying up, best buddies in the cause of political correctness. HB's new effort, a caring, sharing eco-fable called Once Upon a Forest (U), also lacks that crucial ker-pow factor. The story concerns a cute baby badger who falls gravely ill when her field is polluted by toxic waste, and her three cute chums who go on an odyssey to seek an ancient herbal remedy.

It might, just, be of mild interest to the very young. But most kids, you suspect, are unregenerate sadists who will run a mile from something so earnestly improving. And the film is bereft of the classy production values and the hip, adult humour that transform sophisticated Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and the forthcoming Aladdin into that most difficult of all movie genres, a film for all the family.

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (U), a live-action Disney picture, isn't in that league either; in fact many parents with fond memories of Sheila Burnford's classic children's story and the tasteful 1962 film version (now safely locked in the vaults) will groan in despair at this remake. But it has a dumb, trashy humour that I have to confess secretly to enjoying. And it boasts the spectacle of a mountain lion being catapulted off a hilltop into a waterfall.

Before you dash off a letter to the RSPCA, I should note that the film contains the usual imprimatur from the American Humane Association, and that the perpetrators of man's inhumanity to beast are two dogs. These, plus a snooty Himalayan cat, become separated from their family and cross hundreds of miles of hazardous mountain territory to find their two-legged friends.

Unlike the original, the animals are issued with wisecracking voice-overs a la Look Who's Talking: Don Ameche is the wise, old labrador, Sally Field the sharp-tongued pedigree pussy ('Cats rule, dogs drool. And we don't drink out of the toilet') and Michael J Fox the dopey, irresponsible bulldog pup, lover of junk food and TV ('Mondo bizarro]' he yelps, spying a porcupine: 'It's like a squirrel having a really bad hair day').

The pedigree of the humans involved is worth remarking: the director, Duwayne Dunham, hails from the Lynch mob (he edited Wild at Heart and directed several episodes of Twin Peaks); screenwriter Linda Wolverton worked on Beauty and the Beast and her co-writer, Caroline Thompson, was responsible for Edward Scissorhands, The Addams Family and last week's The Secret Garden.

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (15), a biopic of the Hong Kong martial arts expert and film star, has a fascinating story to tell, but leaps about more wildly than a kung fu fighter in a thieves' kitchen. It's about Lee's struggle to make good in America; about his inter-racial love affair and marriage with Linda Emery; the bitter contradictions of his career (huge star in Hong Kong, immigrant nobody in the States); the mystical demons which haunted him and which, some believe, caused his death aged 32. And, as if all that weren't enough, it also wants to play to the gallery as a knockabout kung fu movie. Jason Scott Lee does his namesake proud in the title role, but the film tries to court too many different audiences, with lethal results.

The ICA continues its unlikely celebration of philosopher all-stars (after Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein) with a documentary on Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (no cert). It focuses on Chomsky's theory that 'thought control in democracy' is exercised covertly by the way the media massage the information flow.

Leaving aside the validity of this argument (my colleagues on the sports desk will be interested in his view of sport as an opiate of the masses), the film is thoroughly researched but also deeply irritating. It gives Chomsky's many critics short shrift. It indulges in facetious, undergraduate humour (surgeons dissecting a newspaper in an operating theatre and the like). It leaps wildly about in time, giving no sense of the development of Chomsky's thought or of the changing historical backdrop. It's as manipulative as the corporate media it places under fire.

And, while one of Chomsky's points is that it's hard to put forward a dissident viewpoint in a 10-second soundbite, you're not convinced that the terrain covered time and again in this marathon film warrants 167 minutes of your time.

(Photograph omitted)

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