Cinema: Boogie Nights: the best in town

OK, so Boogie Nights (18) is a film in which Burt Reynolds plays Jack Horner, a permatanned porno director who coos things like "Goodnight, honey-tits, stay beautiful." OK, so its scenes are bulging with lary shirts, flary dancing pants and big bad bouffants. But don't mistake it for candy-floss kitsch. There's more to it than the sentimental archaeology of consumer bygones, or a soundtrack of Commodores and Boney M hits. Paul Thomas Anderson's movie is an ambitious, substantial work that has formal grandeur and stately grace.

Like an A-Z of roads to ruin, the plot follows the ups and downs (and ins and outs) in the lives of Jack Horner's rep company of porn stars. Horner's wife, Amber Waves (a fierce, fragile Julianne Moore) is matriarch to high-school drop-out and skin-flick starlet Rollergirl (a cheesy, breezy Heather Graham) and to the film's monstrously endowed hero, Dirk Diggler (a likeable, unaffected Mark Wahlberg). Horner plays benevolent patriarch to this community, presiding over a clan that is both the Bloomsbury Group of T&A and a surrogate family unit.

It's a rose-tinted elegy for hedonisms past, and it uses the death of the theatrically released sex movie and the rise of adult video as an index on changing times - as others have pointed out, this echoes the way Singin' in the Rain laments the passing of the silent era. And though it seems unlikely that all pornographers of the period had such tender aims, there's a touching emphasis on the innocence of Horner's endeavour: he dreams of originating an adult cinema "that is true and right and demanding". Reynolds's air of romantic certitude is perfectly judged, his subsequent decline into enervated disillusion the kind of acting that rescues careers.

The script is refreshingly spare and simple. Until it reaches a sickeningly edgy scene in which a drug-dealing Alfred Molina goes gun-crazy in a silk dressing-gown and tiny briefs, there is none of the baroque speechifying that, post-Tarantino, has come to dominate the work of young directors. There is, however, a fair amount of lewd cheekiness in the editing: as Reynolds is marvelling at the size of Wahlberg's penis, Anderson cuts to a panful of sizzling sausages. When Dirk's debut big-screen ejaculation is missed by the camera crew and the obliging ingenu cheerily says, "I could do it again if you need a close-up," Anderson cuts to a torrent of frothing champagne.

He's also frantically interested in period detail, letting his camera linger on aesthetic fetishes like pine-effect headboards, illuminated checkerboard dance-floors and eight-track stereo cartridges. At first, this affords some smug amusement, but as the film moves on, these objects begin to acquire a bleak, funerary quality: the more naff novelties Anderson parades before you, the more his film becomes the reliquary of a dead world. Cocktail glasses seem like Canopic jars, and Julianne Moore's dressing table begins to look as if it was something recovered from Pompeii. Under Anderson's mournful eye, kitsch has become a symbol of mortality.

Films in which boys from impoverished backwaters become intoxicated by American culture are almost a genre in themselves: last year brought two takes on the subject, John Byrne's The Slab Boys and Marc Evans's House of America. Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's Devil's Island (15) is a whimsical Icelandic saga which explores the same themes of aspiration and isolation. Set in a slum area outside Reykjavik, it is an untidy, enthralling and frequently hilarious string of anecdotes about the Tomasson family - centrally, the boorish alcoholic Baddi (a persuasively dissolute Baltasar Kormakur), whose speech is a bricolage of transatlantic cliches; the taciturn Danni (Sveinn Geirsson), who takes secret flying lessons and is soon seen soaring over the ice-fields like the Little Prince, and their demon-sniffing grandmother (a splendidly loopy Sigurveig Jonsdottir), determined to stay put in their corrugated-iron hovel - "They'd have to hang and burn me before I moved into a flat," she rages. Though Fridriksson has no grand thesis to peddle - it's even difficult to determine his position on the creeping Americanisation of his culture - the film has more charm than a barrel of puffins, and is notable just for its hearty renditions of a much-underestimated Icelandic club classic, "Is it Yours or Mine, that Sou'wester?"

The similarly titled Devil's Advocate (18) is more obviously Faustian than Fridriksson's gentle fable. It's a big-budget melodrama in which a hayseed lawyer (Keanu Reeves) meets the guy with the big pitchfork (Al Pacino), living in Manhattan under the name of John Milton (which I guess counts as subtext in America). Satan has swapped his adamantine chains and penal fire for a smart legal practice, where Reeves soon finds himself helping to acquit a celebrity murderer, and so negotiating the film's caseload of delicate innuendo about the OJ trial. Filmed unimaginatively by Taylor Hackford - a director with the Gothic sensibility of Kermit the Frog - Jonathan Lemkin's script focuses on Satan's plan for lawyers to inherit the earth with the aid of the Reevesian sperm. (Maybe if you read it backwards it makes sense.)

The big finale is humdrum stuff - flames, incubi, Pacino miming to Sinatra, Keanu copulating with his half-sister on a black marble altar - and the build up is engagingly naughty about what chooses to associate with diabolism: cigarettes, interior design, flamenco, oriental lesbians, toe- sucking, the New York subway, multilingualism and the Republican party (two US senators appear as themselves at a Satanists ball). And one scene generates a bona fide chill: a quietly weird vignette in which Pacino gives hair tips to Reeves' nervy wife (Charlize Theron), advising her to swap her trailer-park bubble perm for something more stylish. "A woman's shoulders are the front-line of her mystique," he smoulders. "Your natural colour would really bring out your eyes." Devil-as-lawyer is perhaps too obvious. But Devil-as-hairdresser - now that's genuinely terrifying.

The most diabolical film of the week, however, is John Henderson's Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis (15), a stumbling, dismal comedy starring Rik Mayall as Marty Starr, a faded record producer who plots to revive his fortunes by killing his principal artist (played and sung by Jane Horrocks). Mayall's character exists in a state of anxious discomfort that will no doubt be reciprocated by the film's audience as they are forced to endure its crude mugging, cameo appearances by the boom mike and desperate lines like "Do you know what they call a Spud-U-Like in Paris? A pomme de terre Royale." The government should requisition this movie and burn it.

Srdjan Dragojevic's sprawling satire, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (18) was made in Bosnia while the fires were still burning. As a result, its scenes of lunatic brutality are nastily authentic. We see a gang of Serb soldiers dousing potted plants with petrol before torching a house; we see the same soldiers bombed and blasted by enemy fire; we then see them holed up in an abandoned tunnel, forced to drink their own urine. Such scenes illuminate the war more fiercely than the British-made Welcome to Sarajevo. Instead of a dapper gentleman-hero doing his best for widows and orphans, Dragojevic's western journalist is a dilettante backpacker who's well out of her depth. Its images are often shockingly fresh, but the central siege-drama is a rickety construction that relies on the predictable progress of its characters' stagey antagonisms.

As Dragojevic rakes over the embers of the Communist system, the welcome revival of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (PG) provides a chance to see the work of one of its brightest sparks. Made in 1925 - when Eisenstein was still the mythographer-laureate of Soviet culture rather than its most cunning satirist - it's a socialist-realist action thriller filmed on a breathtaking epic scale, and still one of the most exhilarating experiences the cinema has to offer. Go see, go marvel, go mutiny against your oppressors.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.

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