FILM / When West is best: Other new releases - Back in the USSR (15), Dir: Deran Sarafian (US); Painted Heart (15)' Dir: Michael Taav (US); Sonatine (no cert)' Dir: Takeshi Kitano (Jap)

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The Independent Culture
As thriller titles go, Back in the Former USSR does lack a certain pizazz; all the same, you wonder quite how a film entirely concerned with the aftermath of the collapse of Communism managed to end up with a name as anachronistic as Back in the USSR.

In fact, this is the least of the film's problems. The desperately convoluted plot turns on the idea that an assortment of Muscovite monks and villains will all leap independently to the conclusion that the best way of getting hold of a stolen icon is to send a nave, rather stupid American tourist after it. You also have to believe that an attractive Russian girl (Natalya Negoda) is going to fall for him and risk her life to help him, even after she's copied the pattern of his Levis. This would be easier if Frank Whaley weren't so completely charmless a hero. At one point, the main villain - Roman Polanski, of all people - asks him: 'What is it about you that makes me want to hurt you?' Dunno, but he's certainly got a point, and the scene where Whaley gets thrown out of a speeding car counts as one of the film's few redeeming features.

Painted Heart looks as though it will be nearly as bad. The opening scene, showing a small boy learning in brutal fashion to make a connection between sex, violence and lipstick, comes across as the worst kind of pre-Norman Bates cod movie psychology. We then move on 30 years, and meet Wes (Will Patton), an introvert house-painter obsessed with his boss's shy wife, Margaret (Bebe Neuwirth). It's obvious that we're in for a deeply corny serial killer caper; except that we're not: it is a serial killer caper, but one with a highly complicated, thoroughly unpredictable kink.

Where Back in the USSR entirely fails to get under the skin of Russia - when our hero goes looking for what he calls 'the real Russia', it turns out he means the Russia that's interested in Reeboks and American rock - Michael Taav digs deep into small-town America, and finds all kinds of frightening things. This is a rather Lynchy, Jarmuschy America, with all kinds of weirdness bubbling under the surface - as one of Wes's workmates says, people don't make sense until you realise they're all lunatics. But Taav has given it an individual sense of inarticulacy and frustrated emotion - as Wes tells Margaret, waving a knife at her, 'I got these ideas that I don't know what to do with.' When Wes, blackmailing Margaret's husband, Willie (Robert Pastorelli), forgets to put a name on the note, and Margaret thinks it's meant for her, it seems entirely


If the film has a flaw, it's that it's too self-aware, so that at times it comes across as some student's clever hommage to Lynch. In the end, though, it's simply too funny and too strange to resist.

There's a moment in Painted Heart when the killer, in answer to a puzzled query as to why serial killers do what they do, shrugs and answers, 'Sometimes just bein' alive's reason enough.' That wouldn't work for the hero of Sonatine, a yakuza with a major-league deathwish.

Takeshi Kitano, of Violent Cop, directs and stars in what is at heart a fairly standard hoodlum-wants-to-quit-but-his- past-won't-let-go story, with a despairing, noir inflection. There are some gorgeous scenes (a shoot-out glimpsed as lightning flashes in a darkened room), and Kitano has a recognisable visual style; but the film is weighed down by existential pretensions that it doesn't live up to.