FILM / That was then, and that is now

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The Independent Culture
MULTIPLY your New Year ambivalence a hundred times, and you get Century (15), a Hogmanay cocktail of centennial ecstasy and remorse. Stephen Poliakoff's film is framed by consecutive New Year's Eve parties, in 1899 and 1900. The characters all seem giddy with the century's promise: our hero, Paul Reisner (Clive Owen), bounding into a medical research scholarship in London; his father (Robert Stephens), a Romanian-Scottish-Jewish businessman, transporting his nouvelle richesse to a Home Counties pile; and Paul's professor (Charles Dance), haughtily planning a brave new world. It turns out to be a time of delirious self-delusion: new ideas are outweighed by old prejudices, or they come trailing new dangers. It may not even be the new century yet - does it start in 1900 or 1901?

Poliakoff's subject is the false optimism of the fin de siecle - that sense of salvation through science you find in the Sherlock Holmes stories, with their belief that any problem can be solved through deduction. Paul tells his colleagues with Panglossian certainty: 'Expectation of life in the next century will increase to 100 years, maybe 120.' But the film is not so much about the failure of science as of scientists. Paul buzzes with idealism, but lacks the tact or diplomacy to turn it into progress. Dance's Professor Mandry is high on the potential of eugenics but low on ethical awareness.

It takes 45 minutes for the central plot to get going: the battle of wills between Reisner and Mandry. Mandry blocks Reisner's research (we never find out why) and bans him from the institute. Reisner retaliates by seeking to expose the professor's heedless forays into eugenics. The professor is one of Charles Dance's better roles: for once he's not a ladies' man but an ideas man, the aristocratic glint in the eye a sparkle of intellectual surmise instead of sexual appraisal. He embodies that British brand of paternalism - brought out in The Remains of the Day - which pats the lower orders on the head with one hand while slapping down Jews with the other.

Clive Owen, as Reisner, has the same muted power he had as the incestuous brother in Poliakoff's last film, Close My Eyes: erect and well-mannered, yet with a suppressed anguish, which rings out muffled, as if from the depths of his soul. He's particularly touching in the scenes with Robert Stephens as his father, showing a tender frustration at the old man's fierce pride and fulsome vulgarity. Only Miranda Richardson, in the misconceived role of Paul's experienced lover, misses the mark, her rapid speech rhythms too feistily modern. Like Paul, the film rushes at romance, preferring the pursuit of ideas. But those ideas subtly presage a whole doleful century. With this tale of racial chafing, burgeoning feminism and scientific meddling, Poliakoff makes the milestone a microcosm of the age to come. Harder, sparer but more intimate, it's a welcome change from the British cinema's usual exportable nostalgia.

John Turturro's directing debut, Mac (18), is like the actor himself: intense, brooding, spurting into manic humour. With his electric-shock hair, hooded, bulging eyes, and febrile intelligence, Turturro tends to get cast as neurotics and psychos. Here, playing the title role - and, we can infer from the heartfelt dedication, a portrait of his father - he's a combination of the two, with the solipsistic concentration of Barton Fink and the pent-up, explosive anger of the racist brother in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. The question you're left asking is whether Turturro knows what an ambiguous hero he's created - half monster, half saint.

Mac is the eldest of three brothers who go into business building houses after dropping out of other people's construction work. The film is a document of working life in the Queen's district of New York in the 1950s, where Mac (and Turturro) grew up, with its physical graft and racial rivalry. Turturro is in love with simple craftsmanship. When Mac hires a bricklayer, the action stops, as we watch the man go through the rituals of his job: lugging, trimming, tidying, finally checking with a spirit level. We feel as if we're expected to bow our heads. And, in a way, we are - in remembrance of a lost era, where, as Mac tells his son at the end: 'It was the man who had the craft that was the thing to be; not like today, where it's the talkers that are respected.'

Turturro pokes fun at the world of talk in some scenes set in New York bohemia, where an underused Ellen Barkin works as an artist's model and one of the brothers ogles the freely available flesh. Like other humorous interludes - a scene where one of the brothers is furtively masturbated by a woman on a bus, an out-of-control car - it feels tacked on to the sturdy, serious structure. Turturro flatters to deceive us with his direction, which has a first-timer's tricksiness without much photographic flair. And though he laboured on the script for a decade, the dialogue often feels improvised, yielding enjoyable laddish wit, but also half-hearted groping.

As Mac grows more successful, he gets more dictatorial. By the end he's driven away all his allies ('He's my brother, but I can't stand him'), and we're wavering too. But Turturro, you sense, won't hear a word against the guy: his petulance, he calls perfectionism; his dourness, dedication. It's odd to find a film so gritty and at the same time so romantic. When Mac gets involved in a fight, it's a scrappy maul, with clothes torn off and scrabbling in the mud, and you don't know whether to find it titanic or absurd. A little distance from Mac might have made him loom larger. All that grit is washed down with some wistful Italian folk tunes, but the film is still a paean to hard work in danger of itself becoming a slog.

Steven Soderbergh confirms his talent in his third film, King of the Hill (12), but also suggests he hasn't emerged from the sombre alley he scarpered down after his feted 1988 debut, sex, lies and videotape. King of the Hill is carefully crafted, gently humorous and sometimes touching, but it's hard to see what drew Soderbergh to A E Hotchner's memoir of a Thirties childhood.

Jesse Bradford, dark-haired and sallow-skinned, plays 12- year-old Aaron (the young Hotchner), left to fend for himself in a seedy St Louis hotel while his father travels selling watches and his mother recuperates in a mental institution. Soderbergh shoots most of the film in an amber glow, which could be the gold lens of nostalgia, the jaundice of distaste, or just the summer heat - you can't tell. The Depression certainly isn't that depressing: it comes as a surprise when Aaron is reduced to eating pictures of food from magazines. The film is best at bitter-sweet comedy: when Aaron spins frantic fantasies about his father being a spy to parry the jibes of his rich-brat school friends; or when Elizabeth McGovern, the hotel hooker, and Spalding Gray, a burnt-out client, duel with dry disdain. Moments like these remind you that deft wit is Soderbergh's forte. In sex, lies he defined the humour of his generation. So why has he now made a film his grandparents might enjoy?

True to its title, Another Stakeout (PG) is not so much a sequel to Stakeout, as a re-write. It opens with another set piece barely connected to the plot: this time Richard Dreyfuss lands in a pile of trash instead of fish (great gag]). Once more, house surveillance is needed. Dreyfuss continues his double act with Emilio Estevez, and again, bafflingly, is allowed to dominate with his sniggery blandness. Worse, this time they're joined by Rosie O'Donnell, Hollywood's unfunniest actress. There are laughs, but they're not worked into the plot as well as before.

There are no laughs in Desperate Remedies (15), but there is a labyrinthine 19th-century plot to do with babies, bribes and politicians. It's shot in a Day-Glo expressionism that reaches for the stars (Welles, Visconti, Lynch) but grasps a handful of stale air instead. The dialogue is witlessly portentous and the storytelling static. It's all too camp to connect. I watched it with nine other customers at the MGM Fulham Road last Monday. By the end only four of us remained. More than it deserved.

(Photograph omitted)