Bringing Down the House<br></br>Sympathy for Mr Vengeance<br></br>Ichi the Killer<br></br>Dolls<br></br>Trembling Before G-d

Quick, someone, pass me a bucket

Just when you thought you couldn't get any more depressed about America, Bringing Down the House (12A) tops the US box office chart and rakes in over $120m. I could say that it's unfunny, mendacious, poorly cast and dimly plotted, but instead I'll just say it's the sort of film in which someone wants revenge on a dinner guest, and there, in a kitchen cupboard, is a bottle of fast-acting laxative. It's directed by Adam Shankman, who also made The Wedding Planner and A Walk To Remember, so he can now lay claim to three of the most hideous Hollywood films of the decade.

It isn't the ineptitude of Bringing Down the House that's depressing, though, it's its outlook on race and class. Steve Martin plays, well, the usual Steve Martin character. A divorced tax attorney, he arranges a date with a woman he's been emailing in a legal chatroom, but when she arrives at his house (why would you have a first date at your house?) it turns out that she's not a blonde lawyer, she's Queen Latifah, a girl from the 'hood who's just out of prison, and who won't leave him alone unless he helps quash her conviction. The film sees this premise almost entirely from Martin's point of view - and his point of view is that Latifah is an embarrassment. Scene after scene after scene consists of his taking hasty action to avert the social and professional suicide of being caught by his boss in the same room as a black woman.

Compare the scenario with what happens in Beverly Hills Cop. Nearly 20 years ago, that film, too, displaced a streetwise black character to upper-class Los Angeles, but it was firmly on Eddie Murphy's side: he wouldn't have submitted to a fraction of the insults heaped on Latifah. And that's why the American success of Bringing Down the House is so depressing.

We keep waiting for the bigots to get their comeuppance, but instead prejudice is largely accepted as the norm. Co-produced by Latifah, it's not a racist movie, but it's the product of a chronically racist society.

A less offensive film is Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (18), a Korean parable of murder and mutilation. Its first half concentrates on a deaf man who kidnaps an executive's daughter to pay for his sister's kidney transplant. Its second half focuses on the executive as he hunts down the kidnapper. If you're not turned off by the slashings, electrocutions and baseball bats to the head, the film will grip you every second of the way, because you never know what the next plot twist or camera angle might be. With the tragic ironies of the Coen brothers and the violence and style of Quentin Tarantino, it's as mind-boggling as it is stomach-churning.

And it's a Merchant Ivory film next to Ichi the Killer (18), a Japanese gangster story from the deranged imagination of Takashi Miike (Audition, Happiness of the Katakuris). "Bloodbath" doesn't cover it. It's a blood jacuzzi, equalled in its outrageousness only by Bart Simpson's favourite cartoon (Ichi And Scratchy, anyone?). And as in a cartoon, the butchery is so excessive it becomes comic. At least, the scene where a gang boss answers the phone when he's just chopped off half of his tongue is funnier than anything in Bringing Down the House.

Takeshi Kitano is best known for similarly gore-spattered material, but in his new film, Dolls (12A), the blood-letting occurs offstage. Telling three overlapping short stories of doomed devotion, it's a meditative collage of richly coloured, painterly images, with actors who are as quiet and inscrutable as the Bunraku theatre puppets that were Takeshi's inspiration.

Trembling Before G-d (15) is a documentary about homosexuality among Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. I'm not sure why you'd want to see it at the cinema, but it's entertaining and enlightening, and leaves you with tremendous sympathy for its interviewees, attached as they are to a culture in which even a liberal, progressive rabbi thinks a gay man should subdue his urges by eating figs and saying psalms.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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