<preform>Undertow (15) </br> L'Eclisse (PG)</br> We Don't Live Here Anymore (15)</br> Bombon El Perro (15)</br></preform>

Twinkle-toes comes of age...
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The Independent Culture

The Billy Elliot musical may be boogieing along without the film's original star, but I doubt Jamie Bell feels as if he's missing out. He's now had the second leading role in his film career - and the first one to suggest that a film career is something he might actually have. If Billy Elliot didn't even tell us whether Bell could manage a southern English accent, in Undertow he adopts a southern American accent with barely a vowel out of place.

The Billy Elliot musical may be boogieing along without the film's original star, but I doubt Jamie Bell feels as if he's missing out. He's now had the second leading role in his film career - and the first one to suggest that a film career is something he might actually have. If Billy Elliot didn't even tell us whether Bell could manage a southern English accent, in Undertow he adopts a southern American accent with barely a vowel out of place.

He leads a scratchy, sunburnt existence with his younger brother and his widowed dad, Dermot Mulroney, on a tumbledown farm somewhere just beyond the back of beyond. Bell's main duty is to muck out the pigs, and the farm's main crop seems to be rusting car chassis, so you can't blame the boy, diligent as he is, when he goes looking for trouble. But one day trouble rolls up in the imposing shape of Mulroney's jailbird brother, Josh Lucas.

He believes that Mulroney stole his wife, his share of the family gold, and something else even more valuable, so he's got a fistful of scores to settle, and the two boys are soon running for their lives through the swamps and along the riverbanks.

Undertow is a Southern Gothic fairytale directed and co-written by David Gordon Green, who made George Washington. A Southerner himself, he guides us into a deep South where muddy, ramshackle reality is just around the corner from magic and myth. Everyday events are imbued with a hazy, hallucinatory atmosphere by Philip Glass's foreboding score and by the cinematographer's repertoire of negatives, freeze frames and zooms. And the characters make unironic references to Greek myths and Biblical parables. They're living in a fable, and they know it. At the same time, some of Undertow's weirdness is a consequence of how naturalistic it can be. When one of the boys comes out with a non sequitur about red ants or about whether a passing car driver was a man or a woman, it seems strange only because it's the kind of free-floating talk we tend to hear in real life rather than in the cinema.

Steeped in the influence of John Steinbeck and Terrence Malick (Green's hero, and one of the film's producers), Undertow is one of those rare thrillers that is improved, not spoilt, by its director's artistic pretensions. There may be one stop too many on its tour of the backwoods, but it does have one of cinema's great keep-watching-if-you-dare moments when, in the opening sequence, Bell jumps barefoot off a roof and we see six inches of rusty nail sticking up from a plank on the ground beneath him.

Whether or not the film-makers are having a deliberate dig at his twinkle-toed alter ego, it's clear that he's not going to be doing much dancing after that.

L'Eclisse (PG)

Six months ago the NFT rounded off its Fellini season with a re-release of La Dolce Vita. Now it's the turn of Antonioni and L'Eclisse, which first came out three years after La Dolce Vita in 1962. It's another black-and-white portrait of sharp suits, chic women and crushing ennui in Rome's modernist suburbs. But while Fellini's film is a carnival of characters and incidents, Antonioni is more interested in the symbolic arrangement of vases on a table. L'Eclisse is almost abstract in its focus on mood rather than narrative. In the first scene, when Monica Vitti breaks up with her lover, they spend 10 minutes refusing to face each other, and there's more movement from a buzzing electric fan than from either of the actors.

The third film in Antonioni's "alienation trilogy", L'Eclisse doesn't have a plot, just a succession of long scenes. Vitti drops in on a neighbour who used to live in Kenya. She meets her mother at the rowdy stock exchange. She drifts into an affair with Alain Delon, a flamboyant young stockbroker. His sports car is stolen, then winched out of the river the next morning with a dead body in the driving seat. As Vitti says, she remains "tired, depressed, disgusted and disorientated" throughout. NB

We Don't Live Here Anymore (15)

We Don't Live Here Anymore is based on two short stories written in the 1970s by Andre Dubus while he was a literature professor at a New England university. Not only is the film smugly, hermetically certain of its own sophistication, both of its two leading men play literature professors at a New England university. Presumably, when Dubus was teaching composition, lesson one was "Write What You Know".

Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause are best friends, but Ruffalo is in love with Krause's wife, Naomi Watts, and Krause feels almost duty-bound to have a fling with Ruffalo's wife, Laura Dern. Deceit and adultery ensue, but in the whitest, most middle-class way possible. When Watts and Ruffalo have a tryst, they drive off into the woods in a Mercedes people carrier, and then pick up a lobster from the grocer's on the way home. And when the spouses argue, they do so in an analytical, academic manner, even while they're berating each other for being analytical and academic. There are a few glimpses of domestic untidiness, and the actors can be wounded and human when they're not quoting Tolstoy at each other. But at times you'll wish that, like Mr and Mrs Smith, they could settle their differences with automatic rifles and grenades.

Bombon El Perro (15)

Juan Villegas (below) is too mild and too old for the dog-eat-dog world of contemporary Argentina. Aged 52, he's been laid off from his garage mechanic's job, so he drives around the Patagonian back roads, trying and failing to sell his lovingly handcrafted knives, before returning to his daughter's apartment, a place too crowded for anyone to notice if he's living there or not. His luck changes one day when he repairs a stranger's car with no concern for how long it might take: "Time is the one thing I'm not short of," he shrugs. He's given a well bred hunting dog in return, and his pedigree chum draws such ardent admiration from everyone who sees it that Villegas edges towards the Argentinian equivalent of Crufts.

This meandering, gentle little tale is like a bonbon itself - very sweet, but very insubstantial. Scenic as all the views of the dusty countryside are, there wouldn't be much left of the film without them. If Bombon El Perro is worth seeing for anything, it's for Villegas, who was working as a carpark attendant before Carlos Sorin offered him the role, and whose face and bearing are so unassuming, unaffected and timid that no professional actor could match him.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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