MUTE WITNESS Anthony Waller (18)
THE UNDERNEATH Steven Soderbergh (15)
Just over a decade ago, reactionary thrillers like Class of 1984 were encouraging teachers to discipline their unruly wards not with lunchtime detentions and withering sarcasm, but circular saws and Uzis. Things change. Classroom violence can no longer be the domain of such exploitation movies: it's part of our lives now. So cinema needs to provide answers. The new drama Dangerous Minds doesn't have any, but it has naivety, conscience and a polite sense of outrage, which, in the absence of answers, will sate some people.
An ex-Marine named LouAnne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up at an inner-city high school and lands a job teaching a class of "passionate, energetic, challenging kids". I don't know where this particular Marine was stationed but it can't have been in our solar system, for she doesn't recognise those familiar patronising euphemisms. Consequently, Pfeiffer is shocked to find a class full of rowdy, sassy hot-heads awaiting her. We, however, are not. Nor are we surprised when she gains their trust by wearing a leather jacket and jeans, putting her feet up on the desk and generally coming on like the funky drama teacher who used to let you call her by her Christian name.
Then there's the way she reels her students into the world of poetry. I can let a lot slide - the chic apartment and casual loans funded by her pittance of a wage. But seducing kids with the lyrics of Bob Dylan is pushing it, whatever Professor Christopher Ricks thinks. If any teacher had tried that at our school, they would have woken up with a crowd around them.
But then these particular disadvantaged urchins aren't like any you've known. They're crisply articulate and keep asking Pfeiffer things like: "How are you gonna save me from my life?" They've grown up in the ghetto; yet none of them look like the kids you see hanging around launderettes with faces the texture of bricks.
Dangerous Minds is not as shoddy as its plot or its title (what could be?). It has an absorbing, if not particularly courageous performance from Pfeiffer. And the marvellously grizzled George Dzundza plays her jaded colleague. The writer Ronald Bass stupidly discards him 30 minutes in, when in fact his tart humour is just what the movie needs. John N Smith's direction is as anonymous as his name, though he knows when to slap another thudding rap tune on the soundtrack, so he'll doubtless go far.
Actually, the music almost saves the picture, with Coolio's aching anthem "Gangsta's Paradise" lending clumsy scenes gravity. Yet its inclusion accentuates the film's duplicity. For Dangerous Minds is the movie that dare not speak rap's name.
We can forgive the bastardisation of the real LouAnne Johnson's autobiographical text (she used rap, not "Mr Tambourine Man", to stimulate her class). But shooting a picture about tough inner-city no-hopers without reference to the music that unites (or inflames) many of them is as dubious as making a black actor white-up. When Pfeiffer first meets her students, they are huddled around a pair of booming speakers, rapping ferociously. She eyes them cautiously and surrenders a meek smile, the way you might if you found yourself cornered by an escaped sabre-tooth tiger. Bass and Smith don't see the artistry in what the kids are doing. So they deny it. You're advised to treat their film in the same dismissive manner; this is one class you won't be collared for cutting.
With his first feature, Anthony Waller is already directing like someone who's spent a lifetime getting shafted by the industry. The Moscow film studio, where the sharpest parts of Mute Witness are set, is more like a derelict mental institution than the place where dreams of magic and light are conjured up. Its chessboard-tiled corridors are vast and long, its rafters home to disembodied voices. A young, mute make-up artist named Billie (Marina Sudina) finds herself locked in there after a day spent working on a knife attack for a crummy horror film. And it's there, after hours, that she sees just such a murder for real. Or does she?
Despite the graphic violence, Waller's film never threatens its audience. There are some fleeting moments of raw suspense, but generally Waller is more interested in, say, the reactions of the neighbours beneath the flat where a fight to the death is taking place, rather than the fight itself. This provides much of the film's parched black humour. But it's a thriller that tugs playfully at your lapel, when it should have grabbed you by the throat. Still, it's pacey and imaginative and should do well enough for Waller to pay back the debts he clearly owes to Dario Argento and Brian De Palma.
Steven Soderbergh's debut sex, lies and videotape was unjustly overrated; his follow-ups, Kafka and King of the Hill were unjustly ignored. I imagine the latter fate will greet his angular film-noir-meets- science-fiction thriller The Underneath, though it's his most radical work. You know the story: boy (Peter Gallagher) meets girl (Alison Elliott), boy leaves girl, girl shacks up with vicious thug (William Fichtner), boy comes back, wants girl and ends up orchestrating the robbery of a security van.
Zig-zagging back and forth in time, and shot through coloured filters, it's a disorienting picture - it feels like something you might have dreamt between sleeping and waking. And like your weirdest dreams, it's something you're reluctant to relinquish.
n All films on general release from tomorrow