FILM REVIEWS / A fine romance with no kisses

A WALK IN THE CLOUDS Alfonso Arau (PG) TOMMY BOY Peter Segal (PG) INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA Quay Brothers (nc) KASPER HAUSER Peter Sehr (18)
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The Independent Culture
The Scarlet Letter, opening tomorrow around the country, was mysteriously "unavailable" for previews; could it have anything to do with the fact that Roland Joffe's "free adaptation" of the Nathaniel Hawthorne classic as a period bodice-ripper has met with a robust chorus of disapproval from the American critics?

Instead, we have A Walk in the Clouds, a lush, consciously old-fashioned period romance directed by Alfonso Arau, the Mexican film-maker whose Like Water for Chocolate became the highest grossing foreign-language picture ever in 1992. Keanu Reeves plays a young GI returning from the trenches in 1945, who befriends the daughter of a Mexican-American wine- growing dynasty (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). Discovering that she is unmarried, pregnant and terrified of her father (Giancarlo Giannini), he gallantly agrees to pose as her husband for a single night, then to abscond, taking with him the blame for her condition. But once he arrives at her home in California's Napa Valley, he falls under the spell of the countryside's other-worldly beauty, Sanchez-Gijon's exuberant family and not least the young woman herself.

Arau has expressed his desire to depict Hispanics in a more realistic light than usual, and so it's slightly surprising to behold these idealised, borderline kitsch images: a luxurious hacienda groaning with fine farm food and designer-rustic accessories, lavish dinners accompanied by silver candlesticks and the strains of Vivaldi and a pseudo-mystical "Aztec ritual" with a conch shell. Shot through thick filters, the picture looks like an enthusiastically tinted antique postcard.

Reeves brings a sweetness and integrity to his one-dimensional character, but none of the cast comes particularly well out of the movie: for one thing, setting a big, booming performer like Anthony Quinn, as the family patriarch, alongside a quieter one like Reeves makes the one look hammy and the other wooden. Arau also has an over-fondness for emotional reaction shots, which requires his cast to deliver a constant series of teary closeups and sentimental smiles. Many lines ("You're waiting for a ride?" "No! A miracle!") defy all attempts to make them credible. Even Giannini is defeated when he is called upon to deliver a non sequitur like, "Just because I talk with an accent doesn't mean I think with an accent."

A Walk in the Clouds has a certain daft, syrupy charm; it has performed very respectably in the United States compared to Showgirls and, indeed, The Scarlet Letter, which suggests that audiences are panting for a chaste romance with barely a screen kiss and traditional attitudes to adultery. It would doubtless like to be compared to a fine Chateau-d'Yquem. Certainly, the phrase that springs to mind is "noble rot".

Tommy Boy represents a further milestone in the dumbing of America. Chris Farley, a TV comic from the Saturday Night Live stable, plays the scion of a car-brake manufacturing dynasty whose future is, so to speak, on the skids. It's down to young Tommy to rescue the family business. Alas, he is challenged on many fronts, notably the brain and brawn departments. Put politically incorrectly, he's stupid, obese and charmless.

Farley is a comic cut from the John Candy cloth, though less engaging; none the less almost everyone eventually succumbs to the fatman's wiles as he goes on the road with his smart, nerdy assistant (David Spade). He even, mindbogglingly, gets the girl. If you can live with this obnoxious character, Tommy Boy has flashes of humour, mostly emanating from the pratfalls (for a film about top-notch brakes, there are a remarkable number of car crashes) and the underrated Spade's dry sarcasm. Brian Dennehy, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe and Bo Derek, as an extreme example of what Tom Wolfe called the "social X-ray", appear in small supporting roles.

It's a curious thing, this fixation of contemporary North American film- makers with antique, Mittel-European angst; it has already powered Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog, Steven Soderbergh's Kafka and the Canadian director Guy Madden's Careful. Now it hovers over Institute Benjamenta, a live- action feature from the Quay Brothers, American-born twins based in Britain and best known for their equally spooky animated work.

Their film has vague echoes of Careful, with its turn-of-the-century setting in a fusty, faintly sinister school for butlers. But this is a much more solemn affair; one would have welcomed a little of Madden's camp humour. Mark Rylance plays the new recruit initiated into the academy's absurd rules and weird rituals in a "story" whose leaps are dictated by the logic of dreams. Shot in black- and-white, the film looks lovely, but there is an airless sense of elegant pastiche to it, rather than of felt emotion.

Twenty years ago, Werner Herzog made a first-class film about the strange case of Kasper Hauser, the "wild child" raised to adulthood alone in a dark cellar and destroyed upon his entry into a blinkered, venal world. It's difficult to see the point of this new version. True, Peter Sehr's Kasper Hauser takes a different tack; it's less interested in Kasper than in the complicated manoeuvrings of which he is the victim; born the Crown Prince of Baden, he is dispatched by scheming relatives and only emerges as a character halfway through.

As Kasper, Andre Eisermann is a strong presence, even if he never projects the authentic innocence and strangeness of Bruno S in Herzog's film. But the political meta-plot is a tedious business, dwelling as it does in enormous detail on the complicated Borgia-like cabals of petty German princes - it's hard to give a toss about Ludwig of Bavaria, Ludwig of Baden and their life-and-death struggle for control of the Palatinate.

n On release from tomorrow