Game, set and match

Can Hollywood still make an intelligent mainstream movie? Sheila Johnston puts Quiz Show to the test. Plus round-up

Quiz Show (15)

Dir: Robert Redford

The River Wild (12)

Dir: Curtis Hanson

Beijing Bastards (no cert)

Various directors

Lift to the Scaffold

(no cert)

Dir: Louis Malle

Now your starter for 10: when did you last hear a joke about Immanuel Kant in a mainstream Hollywood movie? Quiz Show, Robert Redford's new film, which he directs but does not appear in, is something that's fast- becoming a rarity: an entertaining, funny, intelligent studio picture. For that alone it should be celebrated, even if, on inspection, it's not quite what it first appears to be.

A quick recap: the story is set against the American quiz show scandals of the late Fifties, when it emerged that almost all these popular programmes were rigged. John Turturro plays Herb Stempel, the disappointed player who blew the whistle; Ralph Fiennes is his suave antagonist Charles van Doren, the crown prince of a dynasty of distinguished academics headed by his father, Paul Scofield. Rob Morrow is Richard Goodwin, the young attorney investigating the corruption (the principals, by the way, are only half the story; the film is uniformly well-played by a large cast of sharply drawn secondary characters).

The script (by Paul Attanasio, who also wrote the upcoming Disclosure) is, at its best, fast-moving, smart and highly condensed. In one scene, for instance, Morrow visits Fiennes's clever, cultured family at their country retreat and observes son and father playing a high-speed game in which each quotes a verse from Shakespeare and the other must identify the play. It shows the pair's closeness, their intellectual agility, the way they close ranks to dazzle the outsider. And, on top of that, it's a coded statement of their different moral positions. Fiennes, the cheat, chooses quotes in favour of expediency ("To do a great right, you must do a little wrong") while Scofield occupies the high ground.

Most of the pre-publicity for Quiz Show has focused on the true-life background. The controversy, too: the film has taken a good deal of heat in the American press for its cavalier way with history. In reality Goodwin was a small cog who moved in late on the public investigations, and, in making him the man who uncovers the scam single-handedly, Redford has been accused of praising the very false gods he sets out to condemn. But the director (who does touch on the Grand Jury hearings that preceded Goodwin's arrival, in a brisk montage) has quite properly replied that the full, true tale would make for very dull cinema.

In a way, though, by speaking at length and passim about how the affair represents for him a defining moment in America's loss of innocence, Redford is doing himself and his movie a disservice. For one thing, there are more of these defining moments in US history than you can shake a stick at, from the 1919 Chicago White Sox baseball scandal (when players took money to throw a game) to Watergate and beyond. They've become a clich of the liberal Hollywood cinema.

For another, it's a little hard to think of a quiz show swiz on quite the same level as the murder of JFK. When Scofield's character says, "Cheating on a quiz show is like plagiarising a comic strip", you inwardly applaud him, and sense that the film is being called upon to carry more symbolic weight than it can bear. It's an odd coincidence that Quiz Show opens here alongside Natural Born Killers (reviewed opposite), another take on the poisoned chalice of television celebrity. Taken together and at face value, they seem to pitch a seductive but silly thesis: once upon a time TV was innocent, but then we were all betrayed and it was downhill all the way to celebrity murderers.

If Quiz Show works, it's as a character-driven piece; at root it's something both less and more than yet another treatise on what went wrong with America - it's that ancient perenniel, the Oedipal struggle. When Fiennes casually mentions the novel he wrote in Paris (he's that kind of intellectual), we note that its subject is patricide. When he finally loses on the show, it's over a question about the King of Belgium: Fiennes names the father (to whom Scofield has already compared himself, "usurped before my time"), instead of the son in whose favour he abdicated - a deliberate error that stands for his failure to escape from his parent's shadow.

The film gives the other main characters their dues, but this conflict is at its heart. Compare the scenes where the two contestants' families discover the betrayal. Turturro's is over in seconds; Fiennes's is long and dramatically weighty. At the hearing, Turturro's evidence is played for laughs. The producers behind the programme get even shorter shrift: seen in snippets or merely heard on the soundtrack. It's Fiennes's speech that is the climax.

In this sense, Quiz Show is a more subtle betrayal of its subject. On the surface, it's gunning for the underdog, the Turturro character who was evicted from the show out of anti-Semitic prejudice. Underneath, its real interest is in the patricians. And for all the ultra-American setting, Fiennes's role is not a million miles from the Prince he's currently playing in Hackney.

The River Wild is another film that doesn't achieve what it claims, although it is still an impressive attempt to create a different kind of role for an older actress. Meryl Streep plays (very convincingly) an avid sportswoman who takes her young son and husband on a white-water rafting vacation. It turns sour when hoods on the run (Kevin Bacon and John C Reilly) hijack the vessel. And, in the course of navigating dangerous rapids, Streep also saves her marriage from the rocks.

The film is energetically directed by Curtis Hanson (who made The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), and it's certainly a refreshing change to see an action heroine at the helm, bossing all the men about. At heart, though, The River Wild takes an arch-traditional view of marriage and family, and often seems more interested in Streep's husband - a snooty city-slicker type who undergoes a mystical learning process that is compared in the film (deeply sentimental, like all Hollywood these days, about Native Americans) to an Indian initiation rite. At the end, he's even credited as the one who saved everybody's life! Still, as family entertainment, this is classy stuff.

Chinese cinema in the West means Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, Farewell my Concubine and To Live. But beneath these prestige festival movies there's a stratum of quite different film-makers: independent, operating outside the studio system, without access to co-production money from Hong Kong or Taiwan, flying by the seat of their pants. They're celebrated in a short season called Beijing Bastards, after one of their more provocative movies.

Beijing Bastards itself, and Mama, about a young mother with a handicapped son, are both worth seeing, although unfortunately the film chosen for the press screening, The Days, looks like one of the least interesting of the batch. About two young painters whose relationship has long since gone stale, it looks for all the world like an old-fashioned black-and- white European art movie. It makes meticulous use of framing, lighting and sound effects, but the net impression is of inertia; the characters are bored with each other and we're bored with them. But the season is well worth checking - a snapshot of the future of the world's most dynamic national cinema.

A brief mention, finally for the revival of Lift to the Scaffold, Louis Malle's first film. It begins like a film noir, as Maurice Ronet and Jeanne Moreau commit the perfect murder, until he gets stuck in a lift in uncomfortable proximity to the crime. Then the mood turns to black farce - instead of staying with Ronet as he tries to escape (and fails - a poor show for a war veteran and ex-Legionnaire, I thought; Keanu Reeves would have had no problem), Malle follows a wild young couple who steal the car and commit more murders in his name. Made in 1957, the film in some ways looks its age (characters get excited about a car that has windscreen wipers); in others, it still seems very modern.

n All films open tomorrow