FILM / Reigning cats and dogs: John Lyttle looks at the best (and worst) of the latest crop of video releases

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The Independent Culture
SLEEPWALKERS (Columbia / Tristar, cert 18, 86mins). Incestuous feline vampire couple slink into tiny, curiously Fifties American town and suck the life-force from local virgins. It's a wonder they don't starve. Stephen King has bitched long and hard about the liberties film-makers have taken with his work (usually with justification). He'll have a harder job complaining in future, having penned Sleepwalkers directly for the screen himself, only to blow his own disturbing scenario in a welter of massed cat attacks and bleeding wounds. Solid special effects - the shape-shifting kitties enjoy the gift of invisibility - although effective performances from hot mama Alice Krige and pouting sacrifice Madchen Amick are wasted. Buffs will note the otherwise meaningless cameo appearances of horror icons Clive Barker, John Landis, et al. On release.

BEETHOVEN (CIC, U, 120mins). The story of one dog and his man - anally retentive Charles Grodin - a sitcom variation on the recent 'From Hell' genre in which an uncontrolled alien presence invades a typical American home, spreading madness (and maybe rabies). In comedy of course, madness is permissible, indeed liberating, as Grodin is taught by his slobbering St Bernard and the contrary attentions of vile vivisectionist vet Dean Jones, Disney's former in-house good guy. Sentimental (naturally), cruel and corny sight gags aside. A sequel looms. On release.

HOUSESITTER (CIC, PG, 97mins). As above, with compulsive liar Goldie Hawn as the St Bernard crossed with Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, come to smash and reassemble uptight architect Steve Martin's uneventful small-town existence. Good moments - as when Martin is forced to sing a maudlin Irish ballad to his father - although there are so many superfluous cutaways to Hawn's snug, shapely rear that you half-expect the picture to reveal itself as an exercise video. On release.

FAR AND AWAY (CIC, 15, 134mins). Tin-pot tale of forced Irish immigration to the America of 1893, every moment struggling for epic status while peddling mini-series emotions. Nicole Kidman inadvertently acts husband Tom Cruise off the screen as Shannon, the predictably high-spirited landowner's daughter - her intensity upstages his dinky toy-boy charm. Worse, none of the visual flourishes flaunt the necessary grandeur: not the funeral procession for Cruise's peasant father, nor the misty morning duel, certainly not the climactic, cast-of-thousands Oklahoma Land Race. Director Ron Howard simply hasn't the passion or arrogance the form demands; this is that rare thing, a mammoth production that loses nothing by being transferred to video. On release.

HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (Electric Pictures, 18, 89mins). Trimmed by a grand total of 109 seconds, John McNaughton's cold, acclaimed roman a clef on the career of alleged serial killer Henry Lee Lucas finally makes it to video, seven years after its original American release. The cuts hurt, yet the picture's documentary flatness remains an asset, distancing the viewer from sleazy voyeurism while recreating the murderer's state of mind. The crimes committed by feckless Henry (Michael Rooker) and his seedy companion Otis (Tom Towles) are stared at unblinkingly, giving the horror of human slaughter a power absent from standard body-count fare. Undeniably gruelling - especially when an entire family is methodically dispatched - Henry is a paradox: a rigorously moral film about the lethal consequences of amorality. On release.

BABY ON BOARD (First Independent, PG, 86mins). Once upon a contract, Judge Reinhold looked like becoming the next big romantic-comedy idol. Then his ill-chosen films - Offbeat, Zandalee - began to stiff at the box office. This straight-to-video release casts him as a New York taxi-driver entangled in the lives of Mob widow Carol Kane - another quirky wasted talent - and her relentlessly beaming brat (twins Alex and Holly Stapley). Pink and feathery, aimed at playpen mentalities. On release.

IMMACULATE CONCEPTION (20/20 Vision, 15, 118mins). Strange and altogether prickly drama that video seems made for, given the limited cinema audience for the off-beat. Not every production offers a childless couple (James Wilby, Melissa Leo) Islamic eunuchs, tripping-out, surging diplomatic crisis, possible rape-impregnation and striking Karachi locations, or the disturbing sexual and cultural undercurrents stirred up by director Jamil Dehlavi. On release.

ALIEN3 (FoxVideo, 18, 102mins). If Alien was a haunted house movie in space and Aliens the ultimate Eighties Hollywood experience, selling nothing save technique-driven action, then Alien3 is allegorical tragedy, a provocative downer that was (rather hilariously) meant to be one of last year's big summer movies. Which is perverse, though not as wayward as director David Fincher commissioning gargantuan prison-planet sets, only to shoot in medium-shot and close-up. Still, this is the best of the series, with existential heroine Sigourney Weaver facing her old adversary on an all-male world without weapons, forced to lead rapists and child-killers to redemption. The continuously re-written script isn't up to the ambitious themes, and the action sequences are perfunctory - yet how often does sci-fi have such blatant pseudo-religious resonance? On release.

LETHAL WEAPON 3 (Warner, 15, 113mins). Identical to Weapons 1 and 2, just noisier. The villains are LA gun-runners rather than mercenaries or drug-smuggling South African diplomats, the explosions and wisecracks are the same, as are Mel Gibson's and due-to-retire Danny Glover's engaging performances. Plaudits to Rene Russo as Gibson's feisty female equivalent and love interest, a woman no male in his right mind would even dream of messing with. On release. Retail price: pounds 13.99.

OVER THE HILL (20/20 Vision, PG, 99mins). The Attack of the Killer Oldies continues, commercial cinema having grasped the implications of modern demographics: the well-off ageing audience has a disposable income and is ripe for exploitation (see Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes, the forthcoming The Cemetery Club). Olympia Dukakis takes her turn at running though the genre's life-affirming cliches, coping with widowhood by chasing 'a new lease of life' in Australia. Oh for a widow who is a bad-tempered bitch a la Tatie Danielle. A pleasant and well acted voyage of discovery however, despite the adherence to formula (granddaughter bonding, learning that it's never too late etc). On release.

THE LONG DAY CLOSES (Curzon, PG, 83mins). On the heels of Curzon's Ballad of the Sad Cafe (with Howards End on the way), Terence Davies' superlative vision of working-class Liverpool life, 1955-6, as seen through the happy eyes of 11-year-old Bud, enraptured by cinema, his family - now that his violent father is dead - and the tranquil magic of ordinary life: when the rambunctious clan clusters together they sink a few jars and chant the hit parade. Then comes school and the psychic scars of bullying. Rapturous in its loving details of past pop culture and in its soft, sighing, emotional shifts, Long Day is also a hybrid marvel seldom seen in British cinema: a 'highbrow' project that puts the 'art' back into heart. Davies banishes the grimness of earlier trilogy entries Hallelujah Now and Distant Voices; Long Day is a glimpse of sun after a life of rain. On release.

TRACES OF RED (EV, 18, 100mins).

Limp and limping erotic thriller saddled with two monumental cases of miscasting - Lorraine Bracco as a rich bitch femme fatale and Jim 'Golden Turkey' Belushi as a sexy cop - and yet another off-the-shelf serial killer plot. Derivative (Body Heat, Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge) and deadly. On release.

REEFER MADNESS (Vision Video, 15, 59mins). A certified sensation. Shot in 1936 and touted as a warning against the instantly addictive effects of the devil weed marijuana (cue insane giggling, Satanic grins and impetuous piano-playing) this is actually exploitation film making at its most manic. Youngsters take one draw on the Ciggie from Hell and boom - they're jiving, petting and driven to crime to support the 'monkey on their back'. The hyperbole can be instructive; one wonders how current anti-drugs campaigns will play 60 years hence. On release. Retail price: pounds 10.99.

THE ADJUSTER (Tartan, 18, 102mins). Insurance adjuster Noah (Elias Koteas) is a serial-comforter, moving from one destroyed home to another, insinuating himself into the lives of the vulnerable and making himself invaluable; he manipulates eroticism, feelings, broken hearts. He even picks up his ready-made family at the scene of a fire. Atom Egoyan's latest off-kilter look at what constitutes 'family life' is blackest comedy, interlacing assaults on censorship (Koteas's wife officially examines, and secretly records, hardcore material) and blank consumer lifestyles with the equally queasy consequences of militant permissiveness - everything collides when Noah finds his own home used as a porno flick setting. Unsettling stuff; laughter and revulsion appear inevitably fused. On release. See Competition.

PARADISE (Touchstone, PG, 107mins). It's a back-handed compliment, but this self- consciously sensitive weepie isn't as offensive as one might fear. Perhaps because the central idea - a couple can't recover from their child's sudden death until a young nephew (Elijah Wood) comes to holiday for the summer - is already so moist that it requires suppression, not hype. The real surprise is the low-key turns wrested from Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, who blend their individual bitterness (at each other, at the world) into an appropriately discordant duet. The film earns its tears, as opposed to merely demanding them, so it's easier to ignore the sometimes psychobabbly dialogue. Scriptwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue's directorial debut. On release.

AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER (EV, 15, 102mins). Provocative laughs a-plenty. Peter Falk, pixillated as usual, scripts a radio drama in Fifties New Orleans and, like all creators of fiction, cannibalises the meat of other people's lives to service his (low) art. Drawn into his eccentric orbit are Keanu Reeves, suffering a major case of the hots for his aunt, Barbara Hershey (who's shocked and titillated by his passion) - their convoluted, steamy relationship is, of course, the very stuff of cliffhanger soap. The reality-fantasy perspective is mercifully soft-pedalled, which merely adds to the air of sly charm. On release.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (FoxVideo, PG, 82mins). Slapdash horror-comedy, seemingly edited for maximum narrative incoherence, saved by a keen line in Valley Girl lingo, as when our heroine puckers her lips and squeals 'Kissing noise' and an unfashionable jacket is dismissed as 'so five-minutes-ago'. Kristy Swanson, blonde and unspeakably beautiful, is teamed with off-screen beau Luke Perry of 90210 fame; sparks refuse to fly. Strange, though, that after the attention lavished on American cinema's new women-who-kill (Basic Instinct, Thelma and Louise, Single White Female et al) that Buffy's affectless, cheerfully efficient multiple dispatchment of fanged fiends should go unremarked. On release.

BINGO (Columbia Tristar, PG, 86mins). A shameful pleasure that really requires a lazy Saturday afternoon, a family bag of crisps, a bottle of lemonade and a selection of chocolate bars as ritual accompaniment. Why? Because Bingo is a dog of a dog movie that paddles in the shallowest pools of cuteness and still manages to amuse with canine tricks you've seen a million times before; the soft- hearted - or headed - may even sniffle when the mongrel is forced onto the road in search of a family. Double-bill it with Beethoven and watch your favourite mutt twirl about in joyous circles. On release.

RETAIL

The audience for art-house cinema fare is growing, as the boom in sell-through titles continues to prove. Three years on from its launch in July 1991, Artifical Eye Video this month offers its 50th retail title, A Strange Place to Meet, starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, as well as Claude Miller's An Impudent Girl, the full-length double-cassette pack of Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse and a newly restored version of Jean Vigo's masterly Zero de Conduite. Prices range from pounds 12.99 to pounds 22.49.

From 8 February, for the next six months, Connoisseur Video will allow the purchase of 15 selected titles from their range at an introductory price of pounds 10.99. Titles include: Orphee, La Ronde, Alice in the Cities and Dark Eyes. Connoisseur's other recent goodies include Rohmer's The Aviator's Wife, The Good Marriage and Jacques Rivette's extraordinary Celine and Julie Go Boating (best, if inadequately, summarised as a trip through the merging of two girls' multifarious fantasies). Recommended retail price: pounds 12.99. Meanwhile, Electric Pictures release their French New Wave titles - Demy's Lola, Godard's Pierrot le Fou and Une Femme est une Femme at pounds 15.99 per tape.

Also at pounds 15.99 is Electric's Ghosts of the Civil Dead, the harrowing Australian examination of the aftermath of a prison riot, not as instantly accessible as Warner's delightful Flirting, a Down Under rites-of-passage study that manages to tackle burgeoning political awareness along with the expected sexual stirrings (pounds 10.99, 8 March).

Also worth checking out are Curzon's Shaking the Tree, Nineties male angst packaged in the thirtysomething mould with a touch of grimness to help simulate realism, and Fernando Trueba's little seen The Mad Monkey, in which the selfish, older, decadent characters (they're all connected to movie-making) have the hots for yet another of those pouting, enigmatic teenage girls. Both titles retail at pounds 15.99.

Warner / MGM / UA's Elite Collection (22 March) is more attractively priced at pounds 8.99 per tape: Equus, The Cincinnati Kid, The Accidental Tourist, The Right Stuff, Annie Hall, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and After Hours complete the first batch. Columbia Tri-Star are charging pounds 10.99 for the Coen brothers' award-winning I-Hate-Hollywood hit Barton Fink, something of a must for the modern movie-buff's collection. As are Tartan Video's Directors Series entries, Badlands ( pounds 15.99), from the neglected Terence Malick and Almodovar's swanky Matador ( pounds 21.99, box set, widescreen limited edition). The fact that both come at the currently trendy subject of serial killing from odd angles is presumably coincidental.

MGM / UA are promoting, from 8 March, the digitally remastered musicals Easter Parade, An American in Paris, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Meet Me in St Louis, On the Town and Brigadoon. Price: pounds 10.99.

Pop culture, high and low, is in evidence in the Ray Harryhausen Sci-Fi Series, available on 8 March. Two double-feature cassettes - 20 Million Miles to Earth / It Came From Beneath the Sea and First Men in the Moon / Earth vs The Flying Saucers - flaunt the spirit of the drive-in and the special effects that made Harryhausen a veritable god with hip youngsters everywhere. Pure magic for a mere pounds 10.99 each.

(Photograph omitted)

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