The Hired Hand (12) <br></br>The Princess Diaries (U) <br></br>The Mean Machine (15) <br></br>Lovely Rita (Nc)<br></br>The Day I Became A Woman (U)

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The Independent Culture

Peter Fonda's directorial debut The Hired Hand (1971) is a movie from Hollywood's last Silver Age, when the counterculture was finding its voice and independent film-makers suddenly had the whip hand. As producer of Easy Rider (1969) Fonda himself had been instrumental in this minor revolution, and buoyed by its success he was free to do pretty much as he liked. That he chose to make an introspective Western may not have been what his fans were expecting – it failed at the box-office on its original release – but 30 years on it has the bearing and address of a small classic.

Suffused with a melancholy similar to Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, which came out the same year, The Hired Hand takes its time to get going, rather like the two "saddle-tramps" Harry (Fonda) and Arch (Warren Oates) drifting around the centre of the story. Following a troubled stopover in a desert town, the pair fetch up at the farm of the wife and child Harry abandoned years before. Hannah (Verna Bloom), who now claims to be a widow, receives her errant husband with no delight; she doesn't want reconciliation, merely a "hired hand" to work the land – and sleep in the barn. Alan Sharp's pared-down screenplay plots this wary three-way relationship of the woman landowner and her two employees with subtle shifts of tone and bone-dry wit, which Bloom in particular handles with majestic grace. "How come you don't keep no dog around the place?" Arch asks Hannah, who replies: "Had one once but it ran away. Never bothered to get another".

The film gains from the ministrations of a highly accomplished crew. Fonda's muted direction, the beautiful lighting of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and the lovely elegiac fades of editor Frank Mazzola all contribute to the mood of dreamy bucolic innocence, a mood which can be suddenly revealed as illusory: the corpse of a young girl, which the camera refuses to look at, floats down the brook where Harry has been fishing. Even when nothing seems to be happening, Bruce Langhorne's guitar-led score reverberates yearningly and foreshadows the poignancy of the story's denouement. In its way The Hired Hand reaches towards the same kind of fatalism as Eastwood's Unforgiven, a feeling which Bloom, Fonda and Oates do their expressive best to underscore; their performances, as much as anything else, raise the picture to greatness.

I wish I could have liked The Princess Diaries a little more, if only because Julie Andrews puts in such a trouper's performance. She looks terrific, too, and carries herself with a cool stateliness that hails from another age. Garry Marshall's urban fairy tale is basically Pretty Woman for kids. Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) is a gawky San Francisco schoolgirl who's used to being ignored, so the discovery that she is a princess sends her into a tailspin. The news comes courtesy of her long-lost grandmother Queen Clarisse (Andrews), who wants to groom Mia for the throne of her homeland Genovia, a principality in, like, "Europe". The back story hardly bears examination – the film simply wants to wow its target audience with the magic of makeover and clip on a little homily about being true to yourself and to others against the meretricious appeals of popularity. It ambles along pleasantly, occasionally rising to a milky sort of humour in its mockery of Americans' breathless deference to royalty, and there are likeable performances from Hathaway (a star in the making) and Heather Matarazzo as her best friend. Ten-year-old girls will get a kick out of it, but the bland, ingratiating wholesomeness of the thing will have all but the sappiest adults slumped in their seats.

Entrusted hitherto with bit parts, "soccer hardman"-turned-actor Vinnie Jones finally completes his transfer to stardom with a lead role. The Mean Machine remakes an old Burt Reynolds prison movie with Jones starring as a former England football captain (he wishes!) disgraced in a match-fixing scandal and now doing time for corruption. Directed by first-timer Barry Skolnick, it's all about Jones's fronting up to violent cons, sadistic screws and a governor (David Hemmings) who's blackmailed him to rig a guards versus prisoners football match. Will Jones throw the game and thus save his skin, or will he recover his integrity and lead the lags to a famous victory? Take a wild guess. Jones isn't bad but the script is a mouldy ragbag of prison clichés and puerile jokes, while the picture itself looks horribly cheap and badly lit.

The title character of Lovely Rita is not the "meter maid" of Lennon-McCartney fame but a German schoolgirl (Barbara Osika) alienated both at home and at school. Sulky, reticent, with a look of infinite boredom in her eyes, Rita doesn't care for anyone's approval, least of all her parents', who lock her in a store cupboard when she misbehaves. Two dalliances, one with a younger boy, the other with an older man, only create more trouble. Jessica Hausner directs with a sort of grave neutrality, and draws a strange, broodingly passive performance from Barbara Osika, who pads around the movie with the air of a caged animal. Not an uplifting experience, but quite an absorbing one.

From Iran comes The Day I Became A Woman a triptych of stories on the theme of women's narrow lot, written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and directed by his wife, Marziyeh Meskini. The first and most distressing of the trio concerns a young girl named Hava and her last day of play; when she turns nine her mother insists that she must remain indoors, but her grandmother, recalling that Hava was born at midday, allows her to enjoy the few hours of freedom that remain. The second episode, about family disapproval and bicycle racing, and the third, an old woman's wish-fulfilment, continue the motif of female independence in the face of ancient and repressive traditions. A sombre glimpse into a near-medieval mindset.

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