FILM / The past is so bright, I gotta wear shades

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The Independent Culture
Blow Up (15) Michelangelo Antonioni (UK)

British Animation Week Various (UK)

Mediterraneo (15) Gabriele Salvatores (It)

Ruby Cairo (15) Graeme Clifford (US)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (12) Timothy Forder (UK)

Loaded Weapon 1 (PG) Gene Quintano (US)

THE BARBICAN'S exhibition 'The Sixties Art Scene in London' has been reproached with over-representing the movement's fun, fizzy side. The same, with provisos, could be said of the accompanying film season, which lingers on the Carnaby Street fantasy at the expense of tougher screen portrayals of the city - there's Rita Tushingham whooping it up in Smashing Time and The Knack, but not up the spout in A Taste of Honey. Dirk Bogarde exudes chic menace in The Servant, but not the fear of a closet homosexual in Victim. Perhaps films like The L-Shaped Room, Up The Junction or Poor Cow aren't big box-office sellers.

But the grunge factor ripples troublingly through the colourful, selfish fashion world of the season's flagship film, Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up - the vagrants captured by David Hemmings' smug photographer for his radical-chic book are one aspect of London that has dated not a jot. Blow Up starts out seeming embarrassingly demode (panda-eyed dollies modelling grotesque outfits, each worse than the last), but slowly casts its spell - it took the lid off Swinging London (and found nothing much inside) several years - 1966 - before others noticed that the party was over. This, and the films by Polanski, Losey, Kubrick, makes you realise that many of the sharpest portraits of the age came from outsiders.

Another blast from that slice of the past launches British Animation Week tonight with a screening of Yellow Submarine. A Bob Godfrey retrospective, a day event on computer animation and Britain's three Oscar nominees are in the season, the week's only other notable film event. The best of the rest (a very steep drop indeed from Blow Up) is Mediterraneo, a likeable but very lightweight film about a group of Italian soldiers stranded on a picturesquely remote Aegean island during the Second World War. The days go by; then months; years, eventually. The men's isolation evaporates into a hedonistic acquiescence - they become attached to the local girls (and donkeys), learn Greek dancing, smoke dope. The platoon's shy youngster loses his virginity.

The film is blatantly escapist (it is even 'dedicated to all those who are running away'), with luminous photography that makes you want to rush out to the nearest travel agent. It's not just the images that are so seductive; there are powerful cultural fantasies at play. Ostensibly, the film's about a common meridional culture that unites Italian and Greek - 'one face, one race', they keep chanting - and will forever exclude the stiff-lipped, white-shorted Englishmen who rescue the soldiers at the end. But in fact Greece, for these Italians, is a liberating dreamland - what Italy is, in fact, to the British in A Room with a View or Enchanted April.

The mood combines a kind of commedia dell'arte buffoonery - the soldiers are endearing incompetents - with a gentle, undemanding sentimentality. Mediterraneo won last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, an accolade that mainly denotes the American Academy's deep-seated conservatism about funny foreign movies.

It is, at least, competent and entertaining, which can't be said of the rump of the new releases. Ruby Cairo offers more lavish travelogue imagery of Los Angeles, Vera Cruz, Berlin, Athens and Cairo - a Cook's Tour taken by Andie McDowell when she discovers her late husband was caught up in an international smuggling operation. Poor Liam Neeson, fast shaping up as Hollywood's dullest leading man, lopes around the fringes of the plot. The expensive, pointless film was produced by a Japanese company with no sense of how to make an American adventure romance.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood adapts and completes Charles Dickens' last, unfinished novel It's a long, slow slog - the film takes the best part of an hour to set up its basic plot premise. Which is that, crazed by opium, Robert Powell's choirmaster is secretly obsessed with the beautiful orphan girl engaged to his nephew.

These scenes are deadly - ineptly scripted and directed without either a sense of the bursting-at-the-seams energy and richness of Dickens' world (the characters are meagre and dull) or a proper mood of Gothic menace - David Lean's Great Expectations is still the most potent rendition of the writer's darker side. Then, brusquely, the film shifts gear: a murder is done, thunderclaps echo and Powell blossoms into a pink-eyed demon. But there's no mystery in the script or its execution.

Near the beginning of Loaded Weapon, you glimpse a police officer reconstructing a suspect's face - not on an Identikit computer but by sticking noses and eyes on a potato. An OK joke, but the pay-off is better: later, a flurry of activity in the back of a scene turns out to be a man being arrested under loud protestations of mistaken identity. His head is a large spud.

That's the sort of throwaway gag that the film should be crammed with - bits of irrelevant (and irreverent) business erupting in every corner of the frame. But although there's a joke every 15 seconds according to the writer-director, there are only about a dozen good ones, most of which you will have seen in the television review clips and trailers. That's about 300 jokes too few for a successful madcap comedy.

The film's also hamstrung by the fact its blueprint is already intentionally funny, although there is some attempt to parody Lethal Weapon's portentiously overblown action sequences - the same shot of bodies cannonballing through plate glass, shot in slo-mo and from a zillion different angles. Emilio Estevez and Samuel L Jackson are the two-tone cops; the supporting cast (Whoopi Goldberg, Bruce Willis, F Murray Abraham, J T Walsh, Tim Curry, Jon Lovitz, some uncredited) better than the material deserves.

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