Let Pokémon do the fighting for you

<b>Pok&Atilde;&copy;mon - The First Movie</b> (PG) | Kunihiko Yuyama | 74 mins <b>Of Freaks and Men</b> (18) | Alexei Balabanov | 93 mins <b>Up at the Villa</b> (12) | Philip and Belinda Haas | 116 mins <b>La Nouvelle Eve</b> (18) | Catherine Corsini | 94 mins <b>L'Ennui</b> (18) | Cedric Kahn | 120 mins <b>Mission to Mars</b> (PG) | Brian De Palma | 116 mins <b>Once Upon a Time in the West</b> (15) | Sergio Leone | 168 mins
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The Independent Culture

Who am I? What am I doing here? What is my true reason for being? When you hear lines like these in a Hollywood movie, you know it's got to be coming from a mad, nine-foot-tall, genetically modified Japanese cartoon cat. On the part of an ordinary person, such pondering would seem a little serious for the studios; people tend to disagree about such things these days, and a tricky conclusion would wreak havoc in the test audiences. With an animated Frankenpuss, though, you know where you are; it'll be evil humans meddling with nature what's to blame, see?

Who am I? What am I doing here? What is my true reason for being? When you hear lines like these in a Hollywood movie, you know it's got to be coming from a mad, nine-foot-tall, genetically modified Japanese cartoon cat. On the part of an ordinary person, such pondering would seem a little serious for the studios; people tend to disagree about such things these days, and a tricky conclusion would wreak havoc in the test audiences. With an animated Frankenpuss, though, you know where you are; it'll be evil humans meddling with nature what's to blame, see?

Americans like such simple answers to complicated questions - and at the moment, they need some new ones to give to their children. Since cartoon cats from Japan seem to be able to do the job at the moment, Hollywood is only too happy to let them.

The GM cat is called Mewtwo, and the philosophical and moral dimension it brings to Pokémon - The First Movie is the most interesting thing about the film. I'm not saying this to be perverse or clever; the film wants you to think so, too, reaching out and thrusting its big ideas in your face before you get the lid off the kids' Häagen-Dazs tubs. The film's first words are Mewtwo's "Who am I?" interior monologue, and it soon moves on to geneticists (bad), cloning and its implications for individual consciousness (tricky), and violent conflict based on prejudice (terrible). By the end, Mewtwo is somewhat heavy-pawedly concluding that "the circumstances of our birth are irrelevant; it's what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are", while everyone else agrees - at some length - that Fighting Is Wrong. Meanwhile the plot, based on the super-clone Mewtwo's attempts to breed his own super-clone Pokémon who can (you guessed!) conquer the world, throws up clone-versus-original visual trickery, and who-is-the-real-me dialogue all the way through.

If you think this doesn't sound like a film whose target audience is pre-teen children, you're right. Pokémon - The First Movie - and that, incidentally, is the most depressing use of the word "first" in cinema history - is aimed squarely at you, ie, the adult who'll be paying for the poké-brats to see it. Nintendo and Time-Warner, the two mega-corps behind the film, have put in all the fighting-is-wrong, nature-is-right, stuff for you, so you can feel good about the kids watching it.

The kids won't care about this at all; they'll feel good about watching it because it's Japanese animation and features a big explosion, fight sequence or person being pushed off a high building every three seconds. This is exactly what you would expect from a Pokémon film, because it's this hypocritical - sorry, multi-layered - approach that has made Pokémon - as the Time-Warner website puts it - "the largest child-driven phenomenon of the decade". Pokémon creatures are fantastical beings that have special powers based on the four elements (a burning tail or water-cannon on their back). They use these powers to stun each other, rather than kill. You see, it's not really violence; it's really gang warfare with mutant teddy bears, although Nintendo prefers to quote "industry watchdogs" who "have likened the game to a 'Mensa version of rock/paper/scissors'". Of course, rock/paper/scissors doesn't have comic books, trading cards, websites, TV series or hokey, bland, post- Lion King "meaning" to show a moral cause as well as a product.

With its clumsy dialogue and jerky animation, this is the worst major kids' film since Power Rangers. Go out of sociological interest if you must, but leave the kids behind.

And make sure they don't sneak out to see Of Freaks and Men, a film by the young Russian director Alexei Balabanov, whose earlier work Brother is also on release. Balabanov is a controversial figure in Russia, part of a new generation of artists whose response to the Chechen war has been to try to upset the establishment. He is a non-judgemental director who likes the very weird and the anti-social because they make engaging subjects for films; it's no surprise then, to find that Of Freaks and Men is about a St Petersburg pornographer in the early 20th century, who sells pictures of bare-bottomed ladies being beaten with birch twigs to the bourgeoisie. It's even better than it sounds. Shot in sepia tones, and using silent-movie caption-boards, this is both a study in perversion and a challenge to ideas about a pre-Revolutionary Russia populated by graceful Chekhovian girls. It is a bit like an English director shooting a Jane Austen adaptation with 18th-century mud, disease and sex in it; ie, a brilliant idea, with a point.

Up at the Villa, adapted from the W Somerset Maugham novella by Philip Haas, is a boring idea without a point. It stars Kristin Scott Thomas gnawing her lip as she agonises over a choice between dashing rogue (Sean Penn) and reliable older man (James Fox). Oh, and it's set in Tuscany in the 1930s; one of those Ibiza Uncovered for prematurely middle-aged young women from Surrey films. You can imagine.

Catherine Corsini's La Nouvelle Eve is a kind of Parisian Bridget Jones for women who would hate Up at the Villa. Be wary, though, of this week's other French art movie which is called L'ennui, and ought to be disqualified from being reviewed on the grounds of its name. It's about a frustrated middle-aged man who falls obsessively in love with a 17-year-old girl. They have frequent sex in tastefully decorated rooms, he wonders a lot about what it all means, she doesn't care, and the audience, I venture, notes the significance of that title.

Lastly, there are two Hollywood epics to mention. Sergio Leone's sprawling masterpiece Once Upon A Time in the West is re-released with its original 20 minutes restored. I don't think it makes that much difference, but any excuse to see this film again will serve. It contrasts tellingly with Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars, which follows a team of astronauts on a rescue bid to the red planet. Space movies, with their motifs of exploration and idealistic new communities, should do much the same job for America that Westerns did, tackling those "who-am-I?" questions. But while the dreadful Mission has ostentatiously meaningful dialogue, it's obvious that everyone - especially the director - was more interested in the special effects, which, to be fair, are amazing.

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