Down from the Mountain (U): <br></br>Legally Blonde (12): <br></br>Little Otik (15); <br></br>Eureka (15); <br></br>Presque Rien; <br></br>Wild About Harry (15)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Their new movie The Man Who Wasn't There may be making waves, but their last film still lives on. Most people agree that the best thing about O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the blue-grass music. Down From The Mountain – directed, with help, by the legendary DA Pennebaker – lays the matter to rest. A documentary about the stars behind the wrenching tunes – and the one-off show they organised in Ryman, Nashville – it just about oozes everyday grace.

As in 1999's Buena Vista Social Club, there are a pile of characters here, all in the mood to entertain high-strung camera folk. Wry hobgoblin John Hartford coolly disses Burl Ives's version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain", ravaged prom queen Emmylou Harris brags about her love of baseball, bouffanted Ralph Stanley gives praise to the "lonesome" Virginia voice, while Gillian Welch – the wonderful Gillian Welch – sticks out like a sore thumb, a West Coast schoolgirl among all these "grown-ups".

The show itself is a gasp-out-loud affair, with numbers by Alison Krauss and the Cox Family the best of all. These people have supermarket bodies and siren voices. And the fluid way in which they interact with one another makes each performance feel unique. Buena Vista had that, too, of course, and was more visually impressive, but Down The Mountain contains no intrusive middlemen to spoil the mood (Ry Cooder, I mean you, and your damn son "on drums"). We see the Coens and Billy Bob Thornton in the audience, but all they do is jump up from their seats and clap. You may want to do the same.

Virginia Woolf always did have a soft spot for socialites – I wonder what she'd have made of Legally Blonde. The story of Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), a Beverly Hills party girl who demonstrates how profound "trivial" female knowledge can be, it almost – almost, but not quite – convinces that its mission is a radical one.

Dumped by her Harvard-bound boyfriend, Warner, for being too dizzy, Elle decides to storm the portals of East Coast power herself. After a few hiccups, she wins over one and all, including a flabby manicurist whom she encourages to get into shape. Then Elle receives her biggest challenge – to defend a beautiful blonde accused of murdering her wealthy old husband.

It all sounds very subversive on paper: the woman is not your average trophy wife. She turns out to be independently wealthy, and puts loyalty to her customers above everything else. As for the manicurist, she's played by Jennifer Coolidge, who crops up as the lesbian trophy wife in Best in Show, and for one wonderful minute I thought that she and Elle, united by their love of dogs, might fall in lurve.

But it's not that sort of movie. In this sort of movie, gays are a joke. As for ambitious young women, they can do what they like, as long as they spend hours on their appearance. Where do they get the money to do this? Well, having a rich daddy helps – or a rich daddy's girl for a friend. It's called the trickle-down effect.

Jan Svankmajer is the sort of director who gives barmy, East European film-making a good name. A perfect combination of folk-tale animation and Seventies-style verité, Little Otik tells of a bourgeois couple whose desperate desire for a sprog brings a piece of wood to voracious life. All manner of things come in for a kicking: from the callousness of parents (little Otik eats a postman – "Well," says his mum, "Mr Mládek wanted to retire, anyway") to misleading TV ads and the desire to keep little girls "pure". Most of the action takes place in the couple's apartment block; they live in the increasingly bloody top flat, our heroine is Altzbetka, the fiendishly bright youngster who lives one floor below. She sees through the adults' antics, but turns out to have a weakness for feeding hungry mouths herself. Altzbetka's sour, middle-aged face is gripping; so are baby Otik's rustling twig arms.

In Eureka, three people survive a dreadful bus-jacking – the driver, Makoto, a young boy, Naoki, and his sister, Kozue. Director Shinji Aoyama's point is that they don't survive intact – like people exposed to a disease, they now present a danger to others, as well as themselves. His question is: what can make them safe? First things first, Eureka is stunning to look at – director of photography Masaki Tamura, like Terence Malick, has an eye that strips the world of ugly mess, leaving only heavenly symmetry and detail. As for the acting, it's loose-limbed and deeply affecting – Yoichiroh Saito, who plays the children's townie cousin, is a real find. The problem lies with the script and the (non) editing: Aoyama, responsible for both, clearly couldn't bear to lose a single oblique and meaningful set-up. Worse, the longer this 218 minutes film goes on, the less subtle it gets. The bus journey the foursome take couldn't be a more obvious metaphor for spiritual truth-seeking; Makoto coughs away like any Dickens martyr, Kozue is beautiful innocence personified. Eureka won the ecumenical prize at Cannes. If God had any sense, he'd complain.

Presque Rien is another beautiful-looking disappointment, only this time the trouble isn't that things are tied up too neatly, but that they're not tied up at all. A young, gay French boy, Mathieu (the gaunt Jérémie Elkaïm), is in hospital, having attempted suicide. We see him before, during and after the crisis, in varying degrees of numbness, and by the end that's how we feel: past caring.

Asoka was a real-life Indian emperor who gave it all up to spread the Buddhist word; needless to say, Asoka the movie concentrates on all the fightin' and lovin' he did before The Change. What with the two marriages, two births and multiple deaths in the family, it can get a bit fraught (Douglas Sirk would have gone gagga for the scenes between Asoka and his dear old mum). And, for those who still miss Sam Fox's contribution to the pop scene, the dance sequences will afford much-needed relief. That said, the man behind this epic – Santosh Sivan, of Terrorist fame – does try to inject some gravitas. Skies tend to be oppressively grey, while the camera regularly zooms in on ordinary and extraordinary animals (ducks, elephants), oblivious to the fray and oddly moving. And super-star Shah Rukh Khan's spots don't get covered up. In fact, this is a spots'n'all portrait – if you want warts, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Were no lessons at all learnt from Divorcing Jack? Wild About Harry is an adaptation of yet another Colin Bateman novel. It's about a reprobate Northern Irish TV chef (Brendan Gleeson) who receives a life-changing blow to the head. Amanda Donohoe plays his confused wife. The two leads do their best, and there's a nice joke about voice-activated dishwashers. The rest, as they say, will soon be history.

Comments