Cinema: One of Heaven's stranger stars

NINE-DAY Buddhists and fair- weather dolphin-huggers aside, Hollywood is Hollywood's only religion. As the movies present it, America is a secular territory where urban people make smart remarks and never mention the Crucifixion. Not so in Robert Duvall's The Apostle (12), a passionate, personal movie in which the talk is all of God, in which the good Lord seems willing to help out with everything from mortal wounds to road navigation, and even the cops have a friend in Jesus.

As its director, writer, executive producer and star, this is unequivocally Duvall's picture. He's rarely off the screen as Sonny, a charismatic and unpredictable Texan preacher forced to flee his parish after he attacks a young minister (Todd Allen) with whom his wife (Farrah Fawcett) has been having an affair. Since most of Duvall's career has been spent providing solid support to flashier performers, The Apostle offers a rare opportunity to get up close to his prickly, discomfiting star quality. And as actors go, he's a real puzzle. How do you even describe him? Those narrow, twinkly eyes contain a weird mixture of honesty and sadism. The high forehead and leathery neck suggest a Galapagos tortoise that's managed to kick its way out of its shell. Is he even from the same planet as us?

His uncanny qualities suit the unfamiliar setting: Sonny's America is a kind of Iran, hidden between the wheatfields of the Midwest. The Apostle doesn't recoil in horror from such a state, nor does it celebrate it with the unblinking adoration of a Billy Graham groupie. Instead, it takes a long, unjudgemental look at its ambiguities and contradictions. We see Sonny heading a Nuremberg-like rally, where an all-male audience give a clenched-fist salute at the mention of Jesus's name. But we also see him defending his mainly black congregation from racist rednecks. And he plunges into these situations with a strange fusion of divine inspiration and breezy sales pitch: he may be moved by the spirit but he patters away like a persuasive brush salesman, raising money by selling "personally blessed" scarves, or talking up his "holiness background". It's a performance without an easily digested moral, which is probably why Duvall lost the Best Actor Oscar to Jack Nicholson for his lazy exercise in self- parody in As Good as it Gets.

Duvall's work behind the camera couldn't be more different in pitch from his screen persona. As Sonny scutters between sinners like a gecko on a mission from God, the camera observes him with easy, unfussy detachment. Duvall's favourite directorial trick is slowly to open out a shot until it reveals some unexpected element. At the beginning of the film, Sonny leans into a car wreck to minister to a bloodied, barely conscious boy. Duvall lets the scene run for a minute or so until you realise, with a tender shock, that the frail hand of a second victim is lying inert at the bottom of the frame. It's an arresting moment in an engrossing movie. And at a time when most American films patronise with imbecile overstatement, that's something for which you can offer up a thankful prayer.

It's been a big week for patchy British comedy. First off the blocks is Roberto Bangura's The Girl with Brains in her Feet (15), an uneven but extremely likeable movie that details the growing pains of Jack (played by a spunky Joanna Ward), a mixed-race teenager discovering sex in Seventies Leicester. Bangura gets cheap laughs from retro cliches like Arctic Roll served on smoked Pyrex plates, but he also takes on less palatable period elements - such as the casual and ubiquitous racism, which he invokes with a refreshing lack of hindsight. Though Jo Hodges's script is sometimes weak and clunky, it's very sharp on the awfulness of school life: John Thomson is a scream as a paunchy, fag-toking PE instructor, and Gareth Tudor-Price is horribly familiar as one of those English teachers who gets a kick out of reading the mucky bits from DH Lawrence to a captive audience of pubescents. If only Grange Hill could have been so disrespectful.

Back in the present day, Niall Johnson's The Big Swap (18) offers a peek behind the festoon blinds of suburbia. Unfortunately, the script is so stuffed with transatlanticisms - malls, chicks, motels, bowling - that it can't produce any perceptive observations about our national sexual attitudes. Which is a shame, because it is a quietly significant film - the first British sex comedy without any innuendo. And its unusual and strangely admirable physical explicitness makes you realise how ridiculously chaste most of our cinema is - how absurd it is, for instance, that The Full Monty should bottle out of its concluding bollock-shot. I saw The Big Swap with an audience of 300-odd whooping office girls, and there was general agreement that a scene in which a group of men in a communal shower surreptitiously compare their size of their penises works better if you can actually see what they're looking at.

Those with more old-school tastes will relish the sniggering corniness of Stiff Upper Lips (15), a deeply silly parody of Merchant Ivory costume drama, in which butler Frank Finlay urinates into a soup tureen, and a corseted Prunella Scales announces "Mr Trilling has achieved a most impressive erection!" Though Gary Sinyor's comedy has a fair quota of snortingly daft gags, it should have been made 10 years ago, when the Brit-lit boom was actually happening. If The English Patient had been the object of its derision, that would have been much braver. And I would have been cheering from the front row.

None of these native efforts is as satisfying as Craig Rosenberg's Hotel de Love (15), an Australian romantic farce in the same rich kitsch vein as Muriel's Wedding. Set in a tacky honeymooners' retreat that boasts a three-foot waterfall named "Niagara Smalls" and a cocktail pianist who caterwauls painful Seventies pop songs like "Howzat?", it's a fizzy little number, enthusiastically overacted by a young cast. Ask me about it in six months' time, and I probably won't be able to tell you a thing about it. But it's lovely while it lasts.

The Grass Harp (PG) contains nothing so fresh. In fact, its antediluvian stars look ready to cash in their bus passes for Zimmer frames. See this and you will have to suffer an absurdly breathy Piper Laurie - a much better name for an oil platform than an actress, I've always thought - as a cracked Southern belle; a fossilised Jack Lemmon as a mountebank who wants to patent her dropsy cure; a fragile Roddy McDowall as a mimsy barber, and a desiccated Walter Matthau in a fright wig and dicky that make him look like the missing link between Mr Magoo and AJP Taylor. All in all, a pretty dubious collation of ham. The script's studiedly eccentric Southern sentimentality is pretty stinky, too: chocolate malts are consumed, folksy wisdom is dispensed and the sheriff walks his prize rooster down Main Street. I was hoping for a few drive-by killings to liven things up. But when the narrator says things like, "I was 11, then I was 16, and nothing was ever the same again," you know to expect the entirely expected.

There are more oversweetened platitudes in George Tillman Jr's Soul Food (15), the story of a family who settle their differences over cornbread, fried chicken and greens. Babette's Feast it ain't, and sledgehammer characterisation is unimproved by Tillman's predilection for poorly motivated slanging matches. But at least it doesn't have the tedious lachrymosity of A Thousand Acres (15), Jocelyn Moorhouse's ponderous relocation of King Lear from Albion, Europe to Zebulon, Iowa, which turns tragedy to tedious two-bit weepie. Her contention is that Goneril and Regan were framed, but, despite a hurricane of tears and snot from stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange, I remained utterly unmoved.

Stuart St Paul's The Scarlet Tunic (12), however, had me blubbering like Rolf Harris over a wounded stick insect. Based on a short story by Thomas Hardy, it's an economy version of Far From the Madding Crowd, in which English rose Emma Fielding accepts a proposal of marriage from fumbling, mumbling John Sessions, then falls for the brass buttons and Peter Wyngarde- style facial hair of dreamy Prussian sauceboat Jean-Marc Barr. The script is undernourished, and the sight of Simon Callow in full military uniform yelling "You're confined to camp!" is more amusing than it should be. But Hardy's fate-punches-everyone's-lights-out conclusion is orchestrated with irresistible poignancy. St Paul may yet be hailed as the saviour of World Cup widows everywhere.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 11.

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