FILM / Spare us from all sequels: REVIEWS: When it comes to sequels, Hollywood just can't kick the habit. Adam Mars-Jones does cold turkey. Plus round-up

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The Independent Culture
In a season of unusually demanding and satisfying products, from Spielberg and Altman and Demme, it's good to be reminded that Hollywood is still what it has always been: a sequel factory.

Beethoven's 9th: an alien kidnaps a three-week-old St Bernard puppy, planning to lay vile eggs in its soft tummy. George Newton (Charles Grodin) takes time off from his business to track down the missing pet. He gives the line 'We have to find that puppy' its most poignant reading in the whole Beethoven cycle. Beethoven saves the day, just when the alien's razor-sharp teeth are closing on his master's dear caring neck, by pulling over the alien ship, to which George has happened to tether him earlier.

Sister Act 9: Deloris van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) is persuaded by her friends in the nunnery to wimple up one last time, and to take over the management of a rundown Catholic dogs' home in Detroit. She finds that though the residents have a low self-image, they have wonderful barking voices - particularly an elderly inmate called Beethoven (voiced by Pavarotti). She turns them into a crack canine choir, and when food poisoning takes its toll of the scheduled singers at a gala concert, Beethoven and his furry friends bring the house down with their rendition of the Ode to Joy from the Choral Symphony.

Hysterical fantasy? Perhaps. But consider this testimony from producer Joe Medjuck: 'Beethoven wrote nine symphonies. This may be only the beginning.' A dangerous man. And consider the evidence of this week's offerings, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit and Beethoven's 2nd.

Whoopi Goldberg is an extremely likeable performer, which is just as well considering the parts she is offered. Maggie Smith is an actress of depth, but if she were any more underused than she is in Sister Act 2 she would be in cobwebs. Bill Duke, the director, has a track record that includes A Rage in Harlem and Deep Cover. If Sister Act 2 is how Hollywood rewards success, how does it punish failure?

The film could as easily have been called The Kids from Holy Fame, since it turns into an aspirational musical of astounding unsophistication. Deloris van Cartier is prevailed upon to take charge of the music class at a parochial school in San Francisco. The kids are tough and mean.

Actually they're not. You know how when you come across a vandalised piano lying on its side in a disused room, it's mysteriously in tune (an incident from Sister Act 2)? The kids are like that. Between them they can muster precisely one social problem. No racial tension, no sexual complications, no learning difficulties. But one girl's mother doesn't want her to sing professionally because of the lack of job security. Talk about inner-city hell] Deloris lends the girl a copy of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (you think I'm joking) and aspiration wins out.

When the kids start to sing, the girls turn out to have had throat transplants from Whitney Houston and one of the boys needs maybe four seconds of pep talk to turn into Stevie Wonder, vintage 1964, yelps and all. But what is that eerie hissing, spitting sound? Could it be a critic's hard heart being warmed by a fresh young cast and the shameless excellence of Marc Shaiman's music direction? Time for a holiday.

Almost as much thought has gone into Beethoven's 2nd as into Sister Act 2. There must have been many script conferences on the presentation of doggy-poo and doggy-pee alone. The conclusion seems to have been that pee is funny, so long as we don't see the orifice that produces it, so liquid dribbling from a briefcase is funny without being tasteless, and so is liquid percolating through the slats of a wooden bridge on to humans below.

Poo must be dealt with on a more abstract level. Like the violent acts in Greek tragedy, it is kept off-stage, and only its effects are dramatised. So the oldest of the Newton children at one point nerves herself to probe a little offering for warmth - to see how recently the puppies passed that way. We see her face clench with revulsion, but that's as close as we are made to get to the experience. Her face tells us that a pet isn't just for Christmas; life always has its underside.

These are small mercies. Beethoven's 2nd is full of slow- motion images of St Bernards at play. We have plenty of time to watch their jowls flap up and down, and to study the way the weight of their skin pulls their eye-slits rhythmically out of shape as they run.

I don't know about you, but if I want to see dogs kissing or licking ice-creams, I buy a Jeff Koons painting. But of course, Beethoven's 2nd has a moral dimension. All the human characters learn something about themselves. George Newton (Charles Grodin) learns that he really loves dogs. (As his co- star Bonnie Hunt sees it, 'I think they can relate to each other a lot more now because they're both fathers.' Is there a torture they use on actors to make them say this kind of thing, or is it a drug?)

His older daughter learns that handsome boys aren't always nice. His son learns that brains can defeat brawn. A human bitch (Debi Mazar) learns that you shouldn't mistreat a female dog. ('I'm really an animal lover, so I found it very difficult to yell at the dogs when the cameras were rolling. After each scene, I'd go over to them, hug them and say, 'I'm sorry.' ' No dog's self-esteem suffered by the making of Beethoven's 2nd. But what about the humans?)

Charles Grodin's unique selling point used to be his insincerity, his cheesiness. Now he's gone all lovable. Making Grodin wholesome is like deodorising Camembert: not everyone liked it before, but nobody will want it now. Grodin, like Goldberg in Sister Act 2, scrunches up his face a lot to signify 'I can't believe I'm letting you talk me into this.' This is the look they should reserve for their agent, next time he offers them a hot sequel.

(Photograph omitted)

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