FILM / The end of the world is nigh

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Casablanca (U). . . . . . . . . .Michael Curtiz (US)

The Rapture (18). . . . . . . . .Michael Tolkin (US)

The Inner Circle (15). . . . . . Andrei Konchalovsky (US/Russia)

The Butcher's Wife (12). . . . . Terry Hughes (US)

The Merchant of Four Seasons. . .Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Ger)

Sleepwalkers (18). . . . . . . . Mick Garris (US)

WHERE HAVE all the good brave causes gone? In the months leading up to its re-release, the many glories of Casablanca - the cast, the photography, the script - have been closely examined. But, viewing it in the context of this week's batch of new movies, you're struck by something slightly tangential. How many American films today care about current world affairs? Have a perspective that extends beyond their central characters' navels? How many run the risk of doing without a happy ending? Romance-against-a-swirling-political-backdrop isn't dead; it has retreated into the past and become very expensive, as though Hollywood had no confidence in the material. Significantly, the two most ambitious recent excursions into the genre, Havana and Shining Through, were both monumental flops.

Michael Tolkin robustly attacked the corruption and shallowness of Hollywood in his novel and screenplay The Player. Now he has dipped his own toe into those waters: The Rapture is his first film as a director. Like The Player, it is 'filmed entirely in Los Angeles, California'; like The Player, its text is the lack of moral certitude in a venal world. But, unlike Altman's film - which, for all its merits, tilts at an obvious target - The Rapture plunges into an area that involves millions of Americans but is rarely treated sympathetically, or even seen, on screen: born-again Christianity.

It starts with a bang (a four-way orgy) and certainly doesn't end with a whimper: any low-budget feature which climaxes in the Last Trump has to get full marks for ambition. Mimi Rogers gives an impressive, edgy performance as a telephone operator who spends the nights cruising and is heading towards a nervous breakdown. Then she experiences a religious epiphany, joins a fundamentalist group which believes that the end of the world is at hand, converts her lover and starts a perfect, Christian family.

The film seems to set out as a satire, or a critique, of fundamentalism. It's clear that Rogers gets religion to stave off her loneliness and despair; there is strange talk of the 'dream' and the 'pearl'; Tolkin's dialogue underlines the sexual subtext of the characters' religious delirium. 'That was strong last night' 'It was almost like the first time,' they say. Or: 'I found God' 'Oh yeah, you gonna move in or is He gonna keep his own place?' But the film doesn't show them as wild-eyed zealots; they're all low- key, everyday people. And, gradually, Tolkin suggests that it might all be true, down to the last letter of the Book of Revelation.

Now, this 180-degree change of tack may be due to the inexperience of a first-time director. Or, quite possibly - for Tolkin is, on all the evidence, quite a sharp character - it's a deliberate ploy to wrongfoot the audience. His film isn't entirely successful, but it is thought-provoking - a stark, uncompromising piece with none of the touchy-feely, New Age spiritualism, of, say, Always, Ghost or Defending Your Life - heartwarming comedies where the afterlife involves nothing more unsettling than flowing white dresses and bright lights.

Religion of a different, though no less potent, kind is scrutinised in The Inner Circle. It's based on the fascinating true-life story of a projectionist (played in the film by Tom Hulce) who is plucked from obscurity to preside over Stalin's private late-night screenings. It's a trip down the corridors of power from his star-struck perspective; and a demonstration of how worship of a false idol turns an essentially kind man into a sour bigot.

The director, Andrei Konchalovsky, tells how, in preparation, he studied archive footage of Uncle Joe. One clip showed Stalin and Molotov going to vote. Molotov heads towards the urn nearest the camera. Too late, he realises his mistake, hesitates, votes anyway, uneasiness creasing his face. Meanwhile Stalin spots what's happening, smiles into his moustache, votes and leaves. 'There was an extraordinary diplomatic tension in this little scene - it was charged with life, death, fate, everything,' says Konchalovsky. 'You can't see the danger but you can feel it. It's in the air.'

His own film - the first Western film to be shot within the Kremlin walls - is superb on tiny, barely perceptible power plays: the tension crackling between the surface pleasantries as Stalin and his goons convene. The Russian actor Alexandre Zbruev impersonates Stalin with an avuncular twinkle; Bob Hoskins as Beria, the feared head of the KGB, conveys the menace beneath the thuggish affability. And the film has some good, surreal touches, like the wedding party at which the guests wear gas-masks, or the strange dream-encounter with Stalin in a blizzard.

The Inner Circle is dismayingly weak, however, when it comes to writing emotions large: early on, the film takes a detour into a mawkish sub-plot about Hulce's wife and her attempt - against her husband's will - to adopt a Jewish orphan, and doesn't regain its bearings until a stunning scene depicting the near-riot at Stalin's funeral towards the end. It feels over-long despite its vast subject, but is a big improvement on the director's recent Hollywood effort, Tango & Cash.

Back to conventional supernaturalism with The Butcher's Wife, a lightweight comedy in which Demi Moore's flaky Southern clairvoyant is persuaded that her destiny is a tubby butcher (George Dzundza) from New York, and follows him to the city, where her predictions and insights unsettle the neighbourhood. Contrary to expectation, the film doesn't self-destruct in terminal whimsy. Its strengths are the incidental characters - a brace of likeable old gossips dispensing Jewish humour and weird talismans, and a sympathetically portrayed lesbian couple (after recent accusations of homophobia, maybe Hollywood's trying a bit harder).

But you don't need a crystal ball to predict the outcome: star is inexorably drawn to star and you know that Moore will wind up with someone of the same approximate fame and glamour - say, Jeff Bridges' mixed-up Freudian psychiatrist across the way. 'It's not about meat, it's about magic,' runs the film's copyline - heaven forbid that an ordinary, overweight butcher be its romantic leading man.

For stories about recognisable working-class people, told with all the simplicity and force of a classic weepy, there have been few directors to match Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died 10 years ago aged 36. The Merchant of Four Seasons remains a remarkable piece: made in 1971, it marked his move away from the minimalism of his early, experimental work to a kind of cinema inspired by, but deeply critical of Hollywood.

Set in the ossified Germany of the late Fifties, it shows, step by step, the walls closing in on a fruit-seller's life - the external pressures on him and the inner demons that make him drink himself to destruction. Fassbinder combines a painful emotional directness with high-precision social analysis. This and Fear Eats the Soul are the outstanding works in a five-film tribute to one of the post-war cinema's most important directors (the others are The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fox and Effi Briest), but all of them are more than worth seeing. In the mid-Seventies, these were big art-house hits; will audiences today bear with these harsh, beautiful, downbeat movies?

To the ridiculous: Sleepwalkers (or should that be 'Stephen King's Sleepwalkers'?) opens with a quote from the 'Chillicoathe Encyclopaedia of Arcane Knowledge' and gets sillier. It's a vampire story with a cast of mainly cats and slumming horror-movie directors (inexplicably, Joe Dante, John Landis, Clive Barker and Tobe Hooper have chosen to dignify it with their presence). There's also a cameo from King himself, and Twin Peaks freaks may like to know that Madchen Amick plays a leading role. But even she, and Clovis the Attack Cat, the feline hero which saves the day, can't redeem this piffle.

The tribute to Fassbinder plays at the ICA (071-930 3647). For details of other films, see opposite.

(Photograph omitted)

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