FILM / Put those pistols down: The week's other new releases

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The Independent Culture
Bad Girls (15)

Director: Jonathan Kaplan (US)

Lightning Jack (PG)

Director: Simon Wincer (Aus / US)

Far Away, So Close (15)

Director: Wim Wenders (Ger)

Sugar Hill (18)

Director: Leon Ichaso (US)

Attack of the 50ft Woman (12)

Director: Christopher Guest (US)

The Getaway (18)

Director: Roger Donaldson (US)

It should be the perfect stamping ground for spirited fillies, that untamed frontier desertscape where everything is up for grabs: what better place for female trail-blazers to flee East Coast social niceties? It's odd, then, that women in the western have so often been elbowed into peripheral roles: hookers and school marms. There are outstanding exceptions, of course (a splendid example, Barbara Stanwyck in Sam Fuller's rip- roaring Forty Guns, plays tonight at the Museum of the Moving Image), but they mostly belong to the past. More recent forays (The Ballad of Little Joe; Gus van Sant's still-unreleased Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) have been chastening.

The latest, Bad Girls, is riddled with the traces of its unhappy production history (see interview, page 24): the firing of the original, female director (Tamra Davis), the cinematographer and its only black star (Cynda Williams). The result feels rushed and shallow, without the instant mythic resonance that should be the birthright of every self-respecting western. This is a crude genre film that keeps lurching hither and thither to little avail, neither a competent action movie nor a more thoughtful character piece.

Unlike Stanwyck, say, or the formidable Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, our 'bad girls' are rather demure ladies - wronged and victimised in various fashions. The only real hell-raiser is Drew Barrymore, swaggering and smoking up a storm, tantalising the villains and all the while (in a cravenly undeveloped plot strand) secretly smitten with Andie MacDowell. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, which has some plot points (abused hookers seeking revenge) in common with this, might not have boasted much in the way of PC credentials. But its sexual politics were so much more intriguing.

The week's other western, Lightning Jack, features an actor - Paul Hogan - who has spun the business of gently self-deprecating male bravado down to a fine art. Here we discover him giving a gruff emergency sex lesson to his eager young sidekick (Cuba Gooding Jnr): 'Does yer pecker work proper? Do you know where to put it?' He's studiedly no-nonsense and subtly embarrassed in equal measure.

Some critics put down the fluke success of Hogan's Crocodile Dundee to nostalgia. Created (in 1986), when the western seemed in terminal demise, Mick Dundee, the Aussie swashbuckler in New York, looked very much like a faint but acceptable modern substitute for that lost breed, the great American pioneer. And so perhaps we should not be surprised that the new film does finally send him to the Old West, as an outlaw whose illegal activities don't amount to much more than the ineffectual robbing of banks, but who is excessively preoccupied by his own image.

Lightning Jack is another Croc- style likeable larrikin: rough- edged, buffoonish and even a little nave. One running gag concerns his manifold gee-gaws and good luck charms, all purchased at rip- off prices from the local Indians. Like Mick Dundee, this cowboy is a migrant relating ambiguously to his host country with an enthusiasm and ingenuousness that American westerns have been hard-pressed to capture (you will shortly detect a similar self-mocking quality in fellow Aussie Mel Gibson's Maverick).

This is a slow-poke piece, a buddy picture rather than an adventure yarn (Hogan's escapades have a habit of going awry). And Gooding, whose character is mute, supplies a grotesquely mugging, eyeball-rolling comic turn. But the landscapes are filmed with a decent reverence (the director Simon Wincer was also responsible for Lonesome Dove) that eschews the MTV flash of some other recent westerns. Gradually I found myself warming to this small, silly, unpretentious comedy.

Unpretentious is not a word which springs to mind when pondering Faraway, So Close, Wim Wenders' companion-piece - an arthouse sequel, in a manner of speaking - to Wings of Desire (1987), but then most films of any ambition expose themselves to that stricture. The new film visits Berlin, a city now united, but only ostensibly, as Otto Sander (Bruno Ganz's fellow-angel in Wings) falls to earth and into a sprawling thriller involving arms dealing, porn videos and Nazi war crimes - which, after two viewings, I still failed to fathom. Nothing quite comes up to the magnificent opening sequence, a beautiful, soaring helicopter shot of Sander, crouched on a statue high over Berlin, which really does create the illusion of an angel in flight. But there are many bright flashes (a poignant cameo from Mikhail Gorbachev, a cherishably absurd night-time raid by trapeze and bungee jump): Wenders has weathered a bad patch before (circa Hammett, 1982) and one trusts that he'll re-emerge, regenerated, from this experience.

It would be a shame if Sugar Hill, a last-minute addition to the week's roster, were lost in the shuffle. It looks at first sight like another violent flick about drugs kings but in fact it's a stylish, languid near-melodrama about the sibling rivalry between two hoods (Wesley Snipes and Michael Wright) haunted by their past. Snipes is an actor with real star quality, and one who has refused to be typecast by his blackness - his recent roles include a cop in the under-rated Boiling Point, a paraplegic in The Waterdance, a yuppie architect in Jungle Fever and, improbably, a drag queen in Beeban Kidron's forthcoming To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Neumar. And this classy, thoughtful, slightly over-long film, whose motto is the simple 'I am. I can', refuses the usual downbeat ending of too many recent black street movies.

Attack of the 50-Foot Woman evokes the B-movies of yore (it's a remake of the 1958 movie of the same name), and briefly pays homage to those two grand old schlockmasters general, Roger Corman and Samuel Z Arkoff (whose names grace the side of a truck). But this film is presided over by Christopher Guest, late of Spinal Tap and also the director of the amiable Hollywood satire The Big Picture, and it's a very different affair. The slant is New-Manish and self-consciously post-feminist, harping at length on the story's subtext (Daryl Hannah plays a poor little rich girl, whose sudden growth enables her to stand up to her bullying father and boorish spouse).

It is nicely made - the effects are fairly passable - and literate with (a hallmark, this, of the Corman B-flick) a gallery of strong female roles. But it's also slow and serious; a dash more trash, sex and car crashes would have brought it alive.

Last and least, a negligible remake of The Getaway, Sam Peckinpah's 1972 couple-on-the- run yarn that turns into a savage meditation on infidelity and the loss of trust when the wife sleeps with a hood to spring her husband from prison. But the new film founders on the dullness of its stars, Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin, and on the sense that it has sweetened the sourness of Jim Thompson's original novel.

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(Photograph omitted)

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