Bloodthirsty beasts (and that's just the actors)

CINEMA
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Anyone who has seen the thrilling trailer for The Ghost and the Darkness (15) will be expecting a strange, supernatural saga of unknowable savagery in the turn-of-the-century South African bush. But anyone unfortunate enough to have climbed aboard this rickety Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas vehicle before warning could reach them will already know that it is actually a very boring film about lions.

"But these are no ordinary lions," screenwriter William Goldman might be heard to splutter into his claret at the Discredited Former Screenwriting Legends' Last Chance Bar & Grill, "these are The Man-Eaters of Svabo!" Imagine, a predator so awesomely ferocious that it can be outrun by Val Kilmer! Theoretically, the idea of casting two such famously unsympathetic actors as Kilmer and Michael Douglas in a film about a pair of bloodthirsty beasts who inspire fear and revulsion in equal measure ought to have a certain perverse appeal (what do you mean: "So where do the lions fit in then?") but it doesn't turn out that way.

Douglas's grizzled big-game hunter - who looks like the illegitimate progeny of Robert Powell's Jesus of Nazareth and the woman from The Dukes of Hazzard - is watchable enough, but he's only on the screen for about a third of the film, and Val Kilmer's camera-hogging "Irish" engineer-hero is a nightmare in jodhpurs. For a Hollywood star of Kilmer's limited talents to essay a role in an unfamiliar accent is like a Premier League football club volunteering to play a cup-tie away from home. And on the evidence of the leakiest brogue since Tommy Lee Jones's in Blown Away, Val Kilmer's balls will not be in the bag when the time comes to make the draw for the next round, even if he does have the film's best line: "Hippopotamuses fart through their mouths."

Among the inevitable supporting Brits, only Tom Wilkinson's camp imperialist - "Firm handshake. I like that: tells me a lot about you" - emerges with any credit. Bernard Hill just looks miserable, and Emily Mortimer's character, Kilmer's love interest and the sole female speaking part, is wet enough to irrigate the Namib desert ("You build bridges John, you have to go where the rivers are!"). The real villains of the piece, though, are the lions, which for all their sanguineous butchery are just not frightening enough. Director Stephen Hopkins ought to know a thing or two about how to make bestial attackers scary - after all, he directed the in-every- respect-vastly-superior Predator II - but for each trusty native retainer (and there are many) who utters the words "These lions are not like lions", there is someone in the audience groaning: "Oh yes they are."

Had there been a little more excitement on offer - had the story aspired to the narrative heights of say, Wilbur Smith - it would have been easier to overlook The Ghost and the Darkness' extraordinarily regressive ideological position, but the only authentic highlights on display here are the ones in Val Kilmer's hair. And this film's vision of colonialism ("White man - his iron penis speak with tongue of fire") would have seemed bizarrely outmoded in the days of the Daktari annual. The specious paying of lip- service to the supposed nobility of African traditions (oh-so-authentic tribal dancing; make-up from the wardrobe department's "Noble Savage" range) only renders the film's implicit racism all the more repulsive.

On paper, The Preacher's Wife (U) looks as off-puttingly wholesome as The Ghost and the Darkness is unsavoury. This remake of the 1947 Cary Grant comedy The Bishop's Wife concerns the edifying tale of a black inner-city pastor (the under-rated Courtney Vance), whose increasingly despairing campaign to defend the remnants of his commun- ity against the depredations of an unscrupulous property developer finds an unlikely ally in the form of an angel called Dudley (Denzil Washington). Throw in a couple of saccharine moppets, plus the fact that the titular priestly spouse is played - at full gospel-choir-mistress throttle - by Whitney Houston, and you would seem to have a fail-safe recipe for mass collective nausea.

This is clearly what the distributors thought: January being the traditional time for using up unwanted festive turkeys. But The Preacher's Wife actually turns out to be shockingly enjoyable. Denzil makes a charming angel, with a handshake that is "kind of like springtime and mum's home cooking all rolled into one". And as with her comparable success, A League of Their Own, director Penny Marshall manages to leaven the schmaltz with enough acidic humour to make it more than palatable.

Although it's absurd how hard this film works at being heart- warming, the strange thing is that it actually succeeds. Perhaps because in the Clinton/Blair epoch The Preacher's Wife's hokey humanism seems not so much old-fashioned as dangerously radical. Or perhaps because it's so much fun to see Whitney Houston annoy the hell out of her mother (the formidable veteran gospel-singer Cissie Houston). The expression on Cissie's face - in consolation-cameo mode as the surly choir matriarch - when Whitney puts her comedically in her place for daring to question one of her Christmas-service vocal arrangements, is enough to turn wine back into water.

Talked into an arranged marriage with a migrant sugar-plantation worker half way across the Pacific, the heroine of Kayo Hatto's Picture Bride (12) travels from Yokohama to Hawaii to find that her prospective spouse is a good couple of decades older than his photo had suggested. (As if that weren't bad enough, his handshake is kind of like midwinter and grandad's home cooking all rolled into one.) Her reaction to this disturbing turn of events is not exactly what you'd call spirited, and her inability to make it through a single early scene without fainting is decidedly wearisome. But after a dull start, this straightforward story of Japanese women struggling to get in the harvest gradually brightens up a bit. There are lots of bracing shots of swishing sugar cane, and the perpetually thwarted menfolk have a nice line in drunken self-pity: "Today croquettes, tomorrow croquettes, all through the year, croquettes croquettes."

Ever since Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch launched the new golden age of US guerrilla film-making at the turn of the last decade, it has been pretty much taken for granted that the most stimulating American cinema would come from the independent sector. Like last year's heinously self-regarding The Brothers McMullen, Nicole Holofcener's feature debut Walking and Talking (15) is the sort of film which makes you wonder how much longer that state of affairs will continue. It's not that this slight New York story of childhood best friends lingering reluctantly on the cusp of adulthood is actively bad - though any narrative which opts to treat an ancient, chemotherapy-addled cat falling from a window ledge as tragedy rather than comedy is in urgent need of a wake-up call - just that there doesn't seem to be quite enough going on to justify all the expense of making a film.

Catherine Keener has the capacity to be a very entertaining screen presence, as she demonstrated in Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion, but the character Holofcener has written for her here makes early-Woody-Allen-vintage Diane Keaton look impressively self-reliant. "We don't have any stars in New York," she observes plaintively, up to her neck in the comfort of her favourite out-of-town swimming hole. "We should be able to see stars sometimes." At this point anyone who doesn't consider Friends to be hard-hitting social commentary might be forgiven for yearning to grant her wish.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

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