FILM / Reviews: The buck stops here: Sheila Johnston on the new releases, including the Martin Clunes Britcom, Staggered

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The Independent Culture
- Staggered (15), Director: Martin Clunes (UK); Needful Things (15), Director: Fraser C Heston (US); Wild Target (15), Director: Pierre Salvadori (Fr); The Saint of Fort Washington (15), Director: Tim Hunter (US); Fortress (15), Director: Stuart Gordon (US); Eversmile New Jersey (PG), Director: Carlos Sorin

To be billed as the latest in a great line of British comedy is not an entirely unambiguous recommendation; for every Lavender Hill Mob or A Fish Called Wanda there are legions of Morons from Outer Space and Splitting Heirs. It's a rickety tradition. In Staggered, a gormless groom-to-be (Martin Clunes) finds himself buck-naked and broke on a remote Scottish island on the morning after his stag night. His friend (Michael Praed) has engineered the prank, with not entirely benign intent, and now the pressure is on for Clunes to report for duty at the altar.

Clunes has a wonderful clown's face (he won't be the next Hugh Grant: no one with those ears could ever be a convincing romantic leading man), although it was, one feels, a mistake to allow him to direct. But the main offender - and this spells death to comedy as to no other film genre - is the script. The central device is our old favourite, the race against the clock (Clunes has three days to traverse the country), but one barely senses the seconds ticking away. And a plot like this needs to be watertight, so that you can see the malevolent logic of the situation closing in. Instead, you keep wondering why Clunes doesn't simply call his fiancee or suspect the patently slimy best friend (no subtlety here: we see him gypping schoolboys out of their pocket money).

The incidental characters are a thin lot: toffee-nosed suburban mum-in-law (Sylvia Syms), randy travelling salesman (Griff Rhys Jones), Plod-like police inspector. The best, least stereotyped thing in it: Anna Chancellor ('Duckface' in Four Weddings and a Funeral) as the morgue attendant with whom Clunes becomes involved. Tall, intense, manic, unpredictable, she reminded me of Sandra Bernhard in King of Comedy.

Another label that acts more as a deterrent than a come-on: the dread legend 'based on the book by Stephen King': with one or two exceptions (The Shining, Misery), his work has produced a flock of frightful turkeys. Needful Things exceeded expectations. Max von Sydow plays a sinister antiques dealer who brings mayhem to the little town of Castle Rock. His wares are matchlessly alluring, but each carries the price tag of an unmotivated act of malice. Soon the decent citizens are devouring each other in an orgy of hate.

The film is described as a parable about the wages of greed, but that's misleading: the objects of desire often have no monetary worth. But their sentimental value to each 'purchaser' is enormous. The story is more concerned with the way we let the past poison our lives: unlike most Kingflicks, it's a character- driven piece unencumbered by blood and tacky effects. A strong cast (Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, the ever-enjoyable J T Walsh) compensates for the odd slackness.

Wild Target is a patchy but likeable French comedy starring the splendid Jean Rochefort (the smitten hero of The Hairdresser's Husband) as a fuss-budget hit-man who falls for his intended prey (Marie Trintignant). The film sags a little midway, but Rochefort's exquisitely timed deadpan performance and a fairly steady stream of excellent jokes (there's a good running gag involving a live - and subsequently dead - parrot) carry the day.

One for John Major: The Saint of Fort Washington is a noble attempt to dramatise the plight of the homeless. Danny Glover and Matt Dillon are two derelicts who forge an unlikely friendship: at root, it's yet another tale of father / (surrogate) son bonding. There are some memorable sequences (a chilling pan across hundreds of beds in a shelter; a bleak burial in an unmarked grave), but, compared to Safe, say, its sentimental heart is still in Hollywood.

Let's skate quickly over Fortress, a dull escape drama starring Christopher Lambert and set in a futuristic prison - the sole points of interest are some good sets and the way (like Terminator) the story conceals male anxiety about fatherhood in a high- tech action yarn. Two retrospectives offer more curious fare. Eversmile New Jersey, playing in a tribute to Daniel Day-Lewis at the Barbican, has a bizarre novelty value: in this would-be whimsical comedy, Dan plays a travelling dentist in Patagonia, and delivers himself of diamond-sharp lines like 'I am a member of the Dubois foundation for dental consciousness' or 'Why didn't the ancient Hebrews have cavities?' You can see the Day- Lewis stamp on this character, a pugnacious, obsessive type, who seems more interested in molars than in getting the girl. Better than root-canal work.

Back in the Seventies, R W Fassbinder was a leading figure in world cinema. Today, almost all his films are out of distribution. Fassbinder was a savage, uncompromising figure, but his bitterest work was always veined with compassion and it is worth grabbing this rare chance to see what all the fuss was about. Recommended: Love Is Colder than Death, Fassbinder's in-your-face first film, a B-movie pastiche; Veronika Voss, a sleek, monochrome melodrama; and Berlin Alexanderplatz, a massive, fiercely personal 13-part saga of Berlin low- lifes in the 1920s - the Singing Detective of German television.

(Photograph omitted)