A thing of threads and patches

FILM

The only thing you won't learn from How to Make an American Quilt (15) is how to make an American quilt. Not the practicalities of it, anyway: the mounting on a frame and the choosing of a colour scheme, the wadding and the applique. What the film does explain is that each quilt is the product of its creators' most intimate personal memories, life's rich tapestry. We are in the land of symbols, and the film groans under the weight of them: a symbolic crow, symbolic plunges from a high diving board and a symbolic windstorm that seems to have strayed in from Twister (a case, presumably, of sewing the whirlwind).

The quilt is being made for Winona Ryder by her grandmother and a sewing bee of six other older women on the occasion of Ryder's impending marriage to her dependable but - quite possibly - expendable carpenter boyfriend. She, meanwhile, has her own project, a master's thesis on "women's handicrafts in various tribal cultures", which she bangs out on a suitably artisanal, low-tech typewriter. The members of the circle give Ryder advice, often contradictory, based on their own romantic liaisons: as usual, women are seen as shaped and determined by their emotional pasts in a way Hollywood heroes rarely are.

This is another of those films which - like Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Waiting to Exhale and last week's Now and Then - fields a big, multi-character cast in order to celebrate female experience, as though a single woman's story were not meaty enough to drive a movie. Here, the line-up includes Anne Bancroft, Maya Angelou, Ellen Burstyn and Jean Simmons, and we wait with contained impatience for each and every one to have her featured flashback.

The threadbare premise is dressed up with some elegant embroidery: the photography - to take just one element - comes from Janusz Kaminski, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Schindler's List. How to Make an American Quilt is a high-class product, fluidly directed by the Australian film-maker Jocelyn Moorhouse. But she has also buffed off most of the spiky edges which made her first films - Proof, an abrasive psychodrama about a blind photographer, and Muriel's Wedding, which she produced for her husband, the director PJ Hogan - unusual and intriguing. For all its celebration of homespun craftmanship, it is, at heart, another Hollywood assembly-line entertainment.

Paris Was a Woman (no cert) is also a puzzling title for a documentary which begins by explaining that, while the City of Light has been invariably apostrophised as such by male artists, the independent and bohemian women who flocked there in the salad days entre deux guerres saw the city as "not a muse or mistress, but a haven". They declined to spend their time fretting about men (most were, apparently, lesbians), going instead about more pressing business such as painting, founding bookstores, publishing, writing and throwing Sapphic orgies. This is a film about real people.

The Juror (18) is not a courtroom drama in the strict sense; its trial - a routine Mafia killing - is an open-and-shut affair. Instead, it's an endearingly ridiculous stalk-and-slasher centred on the Mob's attempt to nobble a woman juror. Her introductory words, "I'm a single mother and I'm trying to be a sculptor," read reasonably enough on the pages of George Dawes Green's source novel, but at the press screening they raised a robust laugh as they issued from the lips of Hollywood's most pampered and highly paid actress. Demi Moore gives a perfectly serviceable performance (she keeps her clothes on) but it is difficult to detect the qualities which have made her a star. In the film's defence we cite Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Heche, both rather more credible as Moore's son and her best friend, and Alec Baldwin's campy hitman, a philosophical customer with a passion for art, a keen interest in Taoism and a silky obsession with his victim.

There are more single mums this week, two of them in The Cure (12), in which Annabella Sciorra looks careworn and teary as the mother of a young boy with Aids, and Diana Scarwid, as the irresponsible parent of the boy next door, gets to wear red a lot, smoke king-size cigarettes and polish off a bottle of wine at dinner, all by herself (no doubt here as to which is the more attractive maternal role model). The kids become unlikely friends, and set off in the wake of Huck Finn, down the Mississippi in a rubber dinghy in search of a miracle. Their modern American adventure is fated to end in tears, but Peter Horton - an actor from thirtysomething, directing his first movie - draws touching performances from the two young leads and supplies a restrained deathbed scene (before blowing it with an egregiously sentimental epilogue).

Jonathan Harvey's adaptation of his bright and summery stage play, Beautiful Thing (15), spearheads a trio of new British films and is certainly the most enjoyable of the batch. The kitsch sounds of the Mamas and the Papas set the keynote mood of his poignant and humorous celebration of the pangs of first love centred on Jamie, a shy teenager with a pash on his hunky neighbour. Although some of the characters are drawn in broad strokes, the film manages to be (and this is no mean feat) neither camp nor patronising towards them; apart from the two boys, both excellent, Linda Henry is vivid and funny as Jamie's resilient (single) mum. As a gay, working-class love story, it invites comparisons with another beautiful thing, Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi's Laundrette, although it lacks the earlier film's political focus: it's an indulgent and forgiving portrait of a harsh world of teenage pregnancies and domestic violence, where drugs are a way of life and nobody, including the viewer, gives a stuff about the fact that both boys are below the legal age of consent.

A new film from Nicolas Roeg ought to be an important event, but that has not been the case for some while, and we report with regret that Two Deaths (18) fails to break the mould. Yet on paper the project looks like ideal Roeg material: in Romania, 1989, as tanks roll in to topple the Ceaucescu government, a worldly, indeed degenerate doctor (Michael Gambon) hosts a splendid banquet for a group of his oldest friends. As the evening rolls on, tongues are loosened and souls bared, mainly the dark and twisted psyche of Gambon who reveals his long, mutually destructive relationship with his housekeeper-lover (Sonia Braga).

It is full of disturbing moments, like the intoxicating, wordless eroticism of the couple's first encounter. But the script is also, for much of the time, verbose, even borderline pompous; adapted from a novel, The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini, it has the airless feel of a play. It may be, too, that (witness the ever-diminishing vicious circles described by Dennis Potter) there is limited dramatic mileage in male sexual obsession, a terrain that Roeg has hoed over more effectively elsewhere. The most severe disappointment is the look of Two Deaths, cramped and muddy, with scant evidence of the director's trademark, bravura editing. Perhaps his next film, Samson and Delilah, will breathe new life into his career.

Bringing up the rear, The Grotesque (18) proffers a rum brew of Gothic murder mystery and social satire in post-war Norfolk. Alan Bates plays a fruity, eccentric country squire whose world is invaded by the double threat of a sinister butler (Sting) and a wimpy poet seeking his daughter's hand. As a thriller, it is a non-starter and the strenuous attempts at comic weirdness rarely take flight. The publicist described it to me as "Remains of the Day on acid". Miss Marple on Prozac, more like.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

Kevin Jackson returns next week

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