FILM / Time to put away childish things: Toys (PG) Barry Levinson (US); A Brighter Summer Day (no cert) Edward Yang (Taiwan); Consenting Adults (15) Alan J Pakula (US)

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The Independent Culture
Running through Barry Levinson's films is a deep vein of pessimism about the dubious boons of modernity. Tin Men lamented the aluminium sidings grafted on to perfectly personable suburban houses in the Fifties and Sixties. In Avalon, the demon television is the catalyst that causes the breakdown of the extended family. The final frames of Bugsy showed the evaporation of Bugsy's pleasure dome into the tacky neon tourist trap of present-day Las Vegas.

And the factory in his new film, Toys, dabbles in virtual reality. It is self-consciously Nineties enough to abhor ethnocentrism (its fake pools of vomit include such impeccably politically correct options as Teriyaki Toss and Hasidic Heave). But its trump card is an army of old-fashioned, gaily coloured clockwork toys that takes arms against the new generation of battery- and microchip- powered gizmos; their long pitched battle forms the film's climax.

This is why they fight: an eccentric toy-factory owner has died, inexplicably leaving his empire to his brother (Michael Gambon), a rabid old warhorse chafing at the bit with boredom; since the end of the Cold War, he's been put out to grass. He hatches the idea of transforming the place into a munitions works that will turn out lethal planes in the guise of toys. It is left to his nephew (Robin Williams) and niece (Joan Cusack) to put aside their childlike eccentricities and to thwart the plan.

Williams plays one of his beatific innocents, as seen in Hook, The Fisher King, The World According to Garp, Awakenings, Moscow on the Hudson, Mork and Mindy . . . In Toys, with his wispy blonde hair, baby-blue eyes and wardrobe of clownish jackets, he's like Tom Hanks in Big - his little boy's heart concealing a genius for designing toys. You get glimpses of a savvy, lustful individual in his flights of sustained comic shtick, but they sit uncomfortably with the babe-like bit. When he tells Gambon that 'Dad thought war was the domain of the small penis', and later nicknames him FAO Schwarzkopf, it assumes a knowledge of the 'real' world. But it's impossible to imagine that character perusing Freud, or visiting New York, or following the Gulf war. At moments, there's an almost schizoid division between the two sides; when he puts the make on a pretty, dippy employee (Robin Wright), it's a glove puppet on his hand ('Psst . . . wanna get laid?') that articulates the naughty thought.

Toys tells us to go find the child in ourselves - that old chestnut - although there's also a contradictory subtext about the failure of the male characters (Williams, Gambon and his own son, played by L L Cool J) to break free of their fathers' thrall. Ferdinando Scarfiotti's breathtaking set designs subtly underline the idea: he favours little womb- like spaces - Cusack's duck-shaped bed, placed within a room painted with clouds, within a home that flops out like a page from a child's pop-up box; a doll's house salon that's a perfect replica of the 'real' room it's set in.

The film favours miniatures - it opens on a scale model of downtown Manhattan; Williams seduces Wright with quarter-bottles of champagne; and even the attraction of Gambon's toy weapons is their size. Scarfiotti's detailed designs are nothing short of extraordinary, and a powerful reason for seeing the film. In fact, while Toys isn't perfect by any lights, it contains enough surprising moments to give pause for wonder - not least at the odium it has attracted, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another film that might be passed over, for different reasons, is A Brighter Summer Day, Edward Yang's four-hour saga of growing up and gang warfare in Taiwan, anno 1960. Its kids are second- generation immigrants - their parents refugees from mainland China after Mao's victory in 1949. Their lives are a cultural hotchpotch - the homes are Japanese (a memento of Taiwan's 50 years of Japanese rule); their parents hanker after old Shanghai; their own horizons are firmly circumscribed by Elvis and other American friends.

This is a grand film, epic in intent and realisation, although it's hard-going initially, thanks to poor subtitles, a very large fresco of characters and Yang's distinctive habit of holding his camera back from them. The lighting is Rembrandt-quality (many scenes take place by the glow of a single candle or torch). Catch it quickly if this appeals: the film plays in London for a single week.

Space precludes much comment on the silly thriller Consenting Adults, except to discourage anyone who might be lured along by its director, Alan Pakula's, pedigree (Klute, The Parallax View, All the President's Men). Kevin Kline covets the wife next door and ends up accused of murder; Kevin Spacey is the best thing in the film as his diabolic, worldly neighbour.

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