Cinema: These old guys sure get around

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AGEING MEN who go for unfeasibly young women are flavour of the week. While Humbert and Lolita talk dirty on Screen 1, Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn are on Screen 2, getting all steamed up about the plumbing in their hotel. "The shower was excellent, wasn't it?" ventures Soon- Yi. "Yes," concurs Woody. "Great pressure."

Barbara Kopple's engrossing documentary Wild Man Blues (12) follows Allen around Europe with his New Orleans jazz band. At heart, it's there to demonstrate that the Allen-Previn relationship isn't some weird, seedy affair. As as far as the seediness is concemed, they're absolved: Soon- Yi seems more like his carer than his nymphet; a plain, sensible woman who likes helping old guys get around. Allen, for his part, plays malcontented grandpa with expert ease: he tells us how he hates dogs, hates putting his bare feet on cold marble, hates sharing a bathroom, hates medieval cities ("too sinister"), and hates getting flowers, "because the burden is always on the receiver". The slow-burning sarcasm is a delight - "I give them specific instructions so they know what to violate," he explains, filling out his laundry chit. But I wasn't sure whether this was wit or folly. Woody seems disconnected, doped-up, distracted, every bit as cranky as his nonagenarian parents, who wish he'd been a pharmacist, gaze at his awards and say, "Great engraving." And though no one could have forced him to go on this tour, he treats the attention he gets with a mixture of boredom, misery and terror. So why did he go? I was left with the image of a sad-eyed spider-monkey languishing in Central Park Zoo, half-afraid of a public who want him to do his funny little tricks. It all makes for complex, troubling and hilarious documentary, but Kopple's film reaches only one certain conclusion about its subject: Woody Allen finds it terrifically uncomfortable being Woody Allen. Whoever that might be.

Rather less complex is Nick Hamm's breezy Cool Britannia comedy, Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence (15), starring Monica Potter as an American tourist who, on her first trip to London, manages to meet England's three most affected men (Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes and Tom Hollander). All three become besotted with her. Screenwriter Peter Morgan has an excellent ear for metropolitan bitchery, and his blokes are horribly plausible London types - Sewell's a jobless poshboy thesp; Fiennes a highly strung underachiever; Hollander a sleazy mockney. Unfortunately, Morgan expends so much energy on their fractious three's-a-crowd relationship that he forgets to make Potter anything more than a goodlooking cipher: Martha is just a series of feisty remarks, presented in sufficient quantities to persuade some people that they have been watching a "strong" female character. She isn't, but I suspect many will fall for her all the same.

In Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrmann used the Dayglo excesses of the foxtrot set to explore the Australian talent for vulgarity. In Shall We Dance? (PG), Masayuki Suo tells a similar story in a Tokyo setting, and presents ballroom dancing as the clandestine passion of a culture terrified of intimacy. For British audiences, much of the fun comes from the incongruity of sober Japanese types getting dewy-eyed over the sequinned naffness of a daft British pastime: "Why should I, a Blackpool semi-finalist, dance in a dump like this?" exclaims one character. More weirdly, the name of Donny Burns (that permatanned, permaquiffed, chiffon-clad gentleman who used to tango with Gaynor Fairweather on Come Dancing) is uttered with the hushed reverence accorded to a household god. It's a peculiar comedy, eloquent on alienation, loneliness and marital misery. So take your partners.

The playwright David Hare shot his debut feature, a filmed record of Wallace Shawn's play The Designated Mourner (no cert) in three days flat. With a schedule like that, it's as well he didn't try to "do" anything with it. With a play like this, it's as well he never got the chance to try. When, in his own work, David Hare pursues arguments about the sanctity of art, he is usually arguing for the sanctity of David Hare. No such confusion here. Shawn's chamber piece - think 1984 rewritten by Henry Jaglom - is a chilling parable of a society that loses its humanity when its books are burnt in some philistine revolution. But it's best watched with closed eyes. Relying on the talking heads of Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson and David De Keyser, Hare declines to visualise his story. Still, it might make great radio.

Back in the open air, Beeban Kidron has taken Joseph Conrad's short story Amy Foster (12) and turned it into a fitfully effective costume drama. I took a long time to be convinced by its central romance - between Amy, a rural eccentric with suspiciously Miss Selfridgey lipstick (Rachel Weisz), and Yanko, a dishy Russian shipwreck survivor washed up on the Cornwall coast (Vincent Perez) - especially as Tim Willocks's script has mutton-chopped crofters going round saying things like, "I tell 'e, no good'll come o' it." But when the stormy conclusion came, I was weeping through my contact lenses. And Ian McKellen - as the local doctor whose disapproval of the match masks a suppressed erotic interest in Yanko - is fiercely watchable. One look into those mournful blue eyes, and you'll be mesmerised.

It's best not to expect much when a film opens with the warning, "Lord Grade presents". But you have to expect the worst when his credit appears again, this time as "Lord Lew Grade". Something to Believe In (PG) demonstrates that he knows as much about movies as he does about the correct form of his title. Nothing can prepare you for this outpouring of crazed, syrupy dreadfulness: it's a road comedy about a terminally ill Las Vegas croupier (Maria Pitillo) and a concert pianist (William McNamara) who travel to a small Italian town to see its weeping madonna. As the local priests, director John Hough has cast two Scotsmen, Tom Conti (adding to his repertoire of dodgy racial impersonations) and Ian Bannen (the only Italian cleric with a slurring Lanarkshire accent). What could be more logical? Certainly not the plot. However, Hough's film is a potentially life-changing experience: see it, and you may never want to go to the cinema again.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 9.

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