FILM / This Jack's no ripper

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The Independent Culture
DON'T FRET waiting for the opening credits in Hoffa. There aren't any. Or, rather, there are, but they come at the end. It's typical of a film which, like a boorish host, makes no attempt to make us feel at home, expecting us to find our own way around. We're never introduced to any of the characters or told when and where the action is taking place (none of those helpful sub-titles: 'Detroit, 1950'). We're treated as if we're not there, and pretty soon we wish we weren't.

There's method in these ill manners. The script is by David Mamet, master of theatrical realism, whose credo is to show, not tell. His screenplay is a contradiction in terms: a minimalist epic. The director, Danny DeVito, has revealed Mamet's conditions for hire: 'Send me the research, and I'll provide a script.' It's easy to believe. Mamet is aiming at his habitual target, capitalism, but seems disengaged.

The film has an awkward switchback structure. It opens in a car outside a diner on a fine summer day in 1975. Not so fine for ex-Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson), since it's the day he will die. He's with his old buddy, Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito), waiting for a meeting. As openings go this one makes Waiting for Godot look like Die Hard. Nicholson passes the time cursing, and scratching his burly, tanned forearms. DeVito now and then offers him coffee. It's hardly gripping.

This scene is the uninspiring spine of the film. We flash back to episodes from Jimmy's career. We see how he met Bobby, foisting his union spiel on him, causing him to get the sack. We see him on the stump, opening the car workers' eyes to their exploitation with a harsh blend of argument and intimidation. We see him flirt and get into bed with the Mafia. The net closes. Bobby Kennedy (Kevin Anderson) prosecutes him for a pension scheme scam. He gets off but soon goes down on corruption charges. We're not told his sentence until he's been in prison for years.

Seesawing between car and career, the film either snoozes or sizzles. There's little reflection or characterisation. Hoffa's early life is not mentioned. His wife appears only a handful of times: hugging him when he's elected president of the Teamsters; a blur behind him in court; packing a bag for him before jail. More effort seems to have gone into Nicholson's prosthetics than his part. A built-up brow and chin make his famous face a thuggish block. His speech, delivered with a gangstery tightness, is equally crude, and lacks Mamet's usual expletive wit. Deprived of the word 'cocksucker', he'd be practically mute. As Nicholson flounders with words, his hands jab away like a novice conductor's, but all you can see is a role eluding his grasp.

DeVito's direction is a succession of ham-fisted flourishes. He's particularly fond of neat links between scenes: a beer barrel exploding in a club cuts into a gavel rapping in court. It's meant to have period charm, but looks plodding. The best scenes are when Hoffa, with plucky insouciance, faces up to the Mafia: here at last Mamet seems at home and DeVito lightens up. In his acting role DeVito is strait-jacketed in seriousness. It may be a slice of wish-fulfilment. He beds the best- looking women and holds unlikely physical sway for his pint size.

The film's not a total whitewash. It bends towards Hoffa, but he still seems a brute. There's more shady dealing than free collective bargaining. Bobby Kennedy is caricatured as a buck- toothed, stammering careerist, but we see Hoffa for what he was: committed to his people, but corrupt and self-deceiving. The film's fault isn't that it makes him heroic. It makes him dull.

Candyman is a triumph of directorial poise. It's out of the Clive Barker stable of shockers, but under Bernard Rose's direction it becomes less a frightener than an essay on fear. Virginia Madsen (sister of Reservoir Dogs ear-exciser Michael) plays Helen, a graduate student at the University of Illinois researching urban myths, and casting a condescending eye over reports of 30ft alligators in sewers. When she hears of Candyman, a black giant with a hook for a hand and an apiary for a heart, terrorising the Chicago projects, she investigates the way the poor blame their lot on a mythical bogeyman.

Naturally, myth begins to masquerade as reality and soon Helen is facing the monster himself (towering Tony Todd). Or is she? Rose never allows us to be sure whether Candyman, whose voice is amplified and echoey, is real or Helen is nuts. He teases us with scenes shot in lifts and car parks, always shunning the obvious shock. When Helen first scours Candyman's lair, we're stopped short by a rapid cut to a menacing black face. Not Candyman, but a young single mother, living in the flat next door. It's a trick that tells us about white fear.

The film's worth seeing for its insight into the squalor of the Chicago southside. The projects Candyman stalks are a wilderness of concrete walkways and red- brick tower blocks. Outside, youths, in bobble hats and shades, greet intruders with spaced-out menace. The walls are a child's drawing-book of multicoloured graffiti. In this bleakness, Helen, tousled and casual on campus, seems coiffed and classy.

Primed by a religiose Philip Glass choral score, the film builds to a climax, without ever taking itself too seriously. Horror devotees may find it all too tame. But it's about the fear lurking under the calm surface of life, and how it holds communities together. By not abiding by the genre's bloody rubric, Rose gives us a rare horror movie - one which leaves us more fearful in the real world than in the cinema.

Crush is also about feelings bubbling below the surface. It opens with a shot of boiling mud and is set in the geothermal centre of New Zealand, Rotorua, a place of smokey swamps, where any second the earth seems likely to open up and swallow the shanty town of cheap tourist motels into its seething maw. The characters' moods match the lowering skies.

'Do you want my skin?' are the film's first words. It's a piece of fruit that's being offered by Christina (Donogh Rees) to her friend, Lane (Marcia Gay Harden). But they're established as victim and predator. Lane, with her vampish Lulu Brooks fringe, pouting scarlet lips, and red and black wardrobe, is a monster, a devourer of people. She's also an American, and therefore a symbol of colonialism. New Zealand has been characterised by Christina as a benign, prelapsarian land without snakes. Trust an American viper to poison it all] In moments Lane's turned over the car, left Christina for dead, and seduced the writer Christina was on her way to interview (William Zappa), and his teenage daughter (Caitlin Bossley). If you're not squashed by one of the weighty symbols flying around, you can enjoy the film as a psychological thriller, a taut triangle of infatuation. Both Zappa's novelist, whose ravaged face looks not so much lived-in as lived-out, and his daughter have crushes on Lane. Rejection leads the girl to nurse Christina back to a ghostly version of her former self. Bossley gives a classic portayal of adolescence, her eyes downcast, her burgeoning opinions diffidently expressed. The only thing uncomplicated about her is her goodness. She's called Angela - another underlining of a script already in capitals.

'Hoffa' (15): Odeon West End (930 7615) and general release. 'Candyman' (18): Odeon Marble Arch (723 2011) and general release. 'Crush' (15): Metro (437 0757) and Chelsea Cinema (351 3742). All numbers 071.