Nurse! Check my pulse, I've written a comedy

Nurse Betty (18) Neil LaBute, 108 mins Miss Julie | (15) Mike Figgis, 100 mins Twin Falls Idaho | (15) Michael Polish, 110 mins Titus | (18) Julie Taymor, 160 mins Whatever | (18) Philippe Harel, 120 mins
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The Independent Culture

In the comedy Nurse Betty, Renee Zellweger plays a vulnerable Kansas house-wife. She works at a diner where she is ogled by the locals (who can blame them? Everything about Zellweger - eyes, hair, full cheeks - matches the colour pink) as she stands glued to her favourite soap opera, a gooey and popular hospital drama. Betty is married to a slob. Life is dull, and casually unkind.

In the comedy Nurse Betty, Renee Zellweger plays a vulnerable Kansas house-wife. She works at a diner where she is ogled by the locals (who can blame them? Everything about Zellweger - eyes, hair, full cheeks - matches the colour pink) as she stands glued to her favourite soap opera, a gooey and popular hospital drama. Betty is married to a slob. Life is dull, and casually unkind.

One day Betty witnesses a murder. She goes temporarily nuts and heads to LA to meet her favourite TV doctor, David Ravell, played by an actor called George (Greg Kinnear). Trouble is, Betty has forgotten that David Ravell is George. Betty thinks David is David, who lives by the beach and performs heart surgery in between light cappuccinos, a brave, sensitive man who still cries about his dead wife (random motor accident, decapitation, the fans are still reeling).

Meanwhile Betty is tracked by a couple of hit-men (Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock) plus a sheriff and a reporter. It's all very strange, even for LA. It's even stranger because it's been directed by Neil LaBute whose previous work, In The Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbours, was so full of contempt, so famously spitting. His very presence alerts you into imagining something horrible behind Nurse Betty. It's almost impossible (even after seeing and loving the film) to imagine that LaBute (this sour curmudgeon, this misanthrope, this third-rate Jonathan Swift) could have abandoned his customary cynicism in favour of a gas.

Nurse Betty is not without its gloomy moments - a thoroughly violent death or two; a lonely drive past canyons and across plains on sun-addled Tarmac - but LaBute seems pretty relaxed, as though he might quite like us after all. The film may present a world of romance and sentiment as opposed to love and feeling, but at least it's recognisably vivid. And its treatment of Betty is irrefutably generous. When she meets George for the first time, he thinks she's some crazy Method actress, a total-immersion expert. The darkest thing in Nurse Betty, to my mind, is the suggestion that Method is a medical condition as opposed to a vocation. The whole thing is very like Steve Martin's La-La Land satire Bowfinger, and as gorgeously funny. These are films with a game joy in their high drama, a silly-farce precision to their key scenes. Films with just the right amount of fizzy naïvety.

Mike Figgis's film of Strindberg's Miss Julie stars Saffron Burrows as the aristocrat (Julie) and Peter Mullan as the footman (Jean) involved in a bout of libidinous and bitter midsummer madness. A drunken and lovelorn Julie goads Jean with her notions of class and he returns fire, full of cruel disgust. Both actors are superb - Mullan because he can never be anything but, and Burrows almost by accident. Hers is the face of a child, broadly and eagerly taking everything in, hurting and scheming with seemingly no art. Burrows, it ought to be said, is Mike Figgis's girlfriend and clearly a muse of sorts (having appeared in his last three films). She has never impressed as an actress before, but her serious, formal voice (previously a real hindrance) gives Julie an inbred politeness for her both to embrace and fend off. With this voice, Burrows hits strange and brilliant notes of excitement and oddness. It's a good piece of work all round.

Twin Falls Idaho is a strange tiptoe of a drama concerning conjoined twins Blake and Francis Falls (played by début feature film-makers Mark and Michael Polish). In the run-up to Francis's death, they meet the gentle Penny (real-life runway model Michele Hicks - as physically perfect as any female replicant in Blade Runner). With its body-fascination, it is sometimes a Cronenberg ("can they have sex?"; "would both twins feel it?") and, with its muggy atmosphere, it is sometimes a David Lynch. And yet it is unusual in its own right. Incredibly, for a film of this type, everyone here is watchful, kind and humbly anxious (even the clumsy pedestrians gawping at the boys on the street are no worse than curious). Twin Falls needs no stronger characters, or stronger story than the one quietly taking place in front of us. It really is unclouded by theatrics, and yet it is wholly dramatic.

Titus is a clumsy vision of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. The play is rarely performed, for obvious reasons: its length and ruthlessness (gang rape, torture, cannibalism, human sacrifice, war). Anthony Hopkins leads as the great Roman general, and Jessica Lange is the Goth Queen in a bosomy frock. Julie Taymor (Tony Award-winner for her Broadway version of The Lion King) makes the mistake of showing us the whole thing through the eyes of a wordless young boy (very A-level). She adopts Grecian costumes and tanks and riding hats and Spartacus-like cages, like some fringe director gone rich and loopy. Just as you think things couldn't get any worse, Alan Cumming minces in as the scurrilous Saturninus wearing a pair of fishnets stolen from Cabaret. Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Chiron) slinks in gold hipsters, Matthew Rhys (Demetrius) dribbles as though the bleach has gone to his head, Angus MacFadyen (Lucius) stands squarely on his feet and shouts into an imaginary auditorium like someone about to break into a song from HMS Pinafore - and everybody has distractingly awful skin. The blackheads on this lot would make Eve Lom quake. Only James Frain (Bassianus) is watchable, and he dies (horribly) after about, oh, 14 hours.

The highly praised French film Whatever is dismal, as it turns out: the story of a misogynist businessman, wandering, Reginald Perrin-like round the country observing that "beds last longer than marriages". He then goes mad as a croissant. It's rather tedious.

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