Cinema: Welcome to the killing zone

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
After the moronic inferno of GI Jane, Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo (18) feels like the cavalry arriving. Based on the experiences of Michael Nicholson, the ITN journalist who adopted a child refugee of the Bosnian war, it's the first English-language film treatment of the conflict, and for the most part it answers its responsibilities with intelligence and subtlety.

The movie's first third is a harrowing chaos of real news footage and restaged atrocity, one that's eloquent on the uneasy relationship between wars, their reporting, and their consumption beyond the battlefield. We see a gang of journalists ducking for cover like a cohort of snipers. We see a glacial Stephen Dillane as Michael Nicholson (rechristened Henderson to licence the film's deviations from biography), striding through horrific carnage, indicating to his photographer which bodies to film, which spilled shopping bags have the most affecting resonance. "Get the vegetables," he barks, "and the guy with the eye." It's crucial for Winterbottom to record such scenes. A movie filmed on location in what - until recently - was a war zone can't afford to ignore the possibility of its own prurience.

However, this sharp critique becomes less important once the film switches focus to Henderson/Nicholson's decision to adopt the young girl who becomes the subject of one of his reports (the real Natasha is renamed Emira to emphasise the film's tentatively anti-Serb slant, and played with uncanny assurance by Emira Nusevic). Oddly, this isn't the shift from acuity to sentimentality that you might expect. Instead, the film is puzzlingly uncommunicative about its central relationship. Henderson and his charge do not have a scene alone together, and "I don't know" is the habitual response when his motives are interrogated. He never even has to answer the obvious criticism that such adoptions might be seen as a well-meaning form of ethnic cleansing. Perhaps for fear for offending Mr Nicholson, the script seems afraid to interpret his actions: his response, for instance, to Emira's cold rejection of her biological mother is a wordless smile, unelucidated by dialogue.

Winterbottom's film has undeniable impact, most of which comes from his clever redeployment of TV images of the war - totally silent footage of the Ormarska and Trnopolje concentration camps is particularly powerful. But its analysis seems over-cautious. Most of the politicians pilloried for their inaction are safely out of office - it would have been braver, perhaps, to have shown us clips of Robin Cook's speeches than those of John Major. As it stands, Welcome to Sarajevo makes sobering viewing, but it should have been a film that paralysed its audiences with a sense of their own guilty complicity.

The first image of Gillies MacKinnon's Regeneration (18) is a shocking aerial view of the First World War trenches: acres of devastated land, men and corpses riddling the mud like fossil seashells. Its scale is so extraordinary that when MacKinnon makes a bathetic shift into standard Brit-Lit cinema, his film becomes a casualty of its opening shot. Adapted from Pat Barker's novel, the film focuses on Craiglockhart Military Hospital, where inmates Wilfred Owen (Stuart Bunce) and Siegfried Sassoon (James Wilby) are undergoing treatment by psychiatrist WHR Rivers (Jonathan Pryce). While the poets flirt and recite future A-level texts to each other, Rivers becomes slowly unnerved by his patients' accounts of the slaughter in France. Though his pioneering techniques facilitate the regeneration of the title, we learn frustratingly little about them. We see the gruesome alternatives - in the form of John Neville's electrode-happy Dr Yealland - but Rivers's experimentally non-punitive psychoanalytic methods go unexplained - presumably because Freud is less fashionable than decorous costume drama. But despite the attention to period veracity, the purely fictional part of the story is where the film rings most true, principally in the story of shellshocked Billy Prior (Trainspotting's Jonny Lee Miller, blazingly good as another sick boy) and Sarah Lumb, the young nurse who befriends him (a razor-sharp Tanya Allen).

John Duigan has overseen the big screen debuts of Elle MacPherson, Jon Bon Jovi and, er, Sheridan Morley. But Mischa Barton, the 11-year-old star of Lawn Dogs (15) is in an entirely different league. As Devon, a bright little girl living in a morally arid suburban ghetto, she's a winningly precocious talent with a penchant for crippling irony. When attacked by a horrid little boy dressed as an Indian, she slots his toy gun into his mouth. "You'd be doing the community a favour," she tells him. Duigan's film is an attack on middle-class mores and a delicate illustration of a friendship that develops between this young girl and a down-at-heel lawnmower man, Trent (Sam Rockwell). This relationship is a strange, wonderful and discomfiting thing: it has a questionable Lolita-ish quality, yet it's an oasis of warmth and generosity in an environment characterised by boorish intolerance and vicious sexual tension - Devon's mother (Kathleen Quinlan) is having an affair with thick-eared neighbour Brett (David Barry Gray), who also tries it on with Devon, while Brett's best mate Sean (Eric Mabius) nurses a carnal interest in Trent. Though there is some stylistic incoherence - realism, magic realism and broad cartooning never quite find a happy dynamic - Duigan's film is a seductive, idiosyncratic achievement that's sharply funny and terrifically moving.

If you're a maverick French director, how do you persuade Hollywood to let you make a film about the destruction of Tibetan culture? Answer: add some Tartar sauce in the form of platinum-blond bimbo Brad Pitt, and before you can say ohm rahme padme ohm, you've got yourself a Dalai Lama drama that won't do a Little Buddha at the box office. Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet (PG) is a diverting travelogue exquisitely photographed by Robert Fraisse, in which Pitt plays Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, and the Argentinian Andes play the Roof of the World (Tibet, I suppose, being too full of gap-year backpackers - and Chinese soldiers - to stand in for itself). It's grandiose stuff, and makes a more effective, less flatulent pastiche of David Lean than The English Patient, with which it has much in common - not least in its focus on a real-life Teutonic hero whose iffy political associations its script has chosen to suppress. Irritatingly, however, though it suggests that Tibetan anti-egoism weans Harrer off his Nietzschean ambition to climb every mountain, the film can't resist putting him on top of an Alp for its final shot. Oh well, at least they didn't call it Lhasa the Red Hot Lovers.

If Pat O'Connor's Inventing the Abbots (15) didn't exist, it wouldn't be necessary to invent it. Her Fifties-set family drama resuscitates the kind of film in which Liz Taylor used to star for MGM, all swish parties and elaborate underskirts. Liv Tyler makes a fair nouveau Liz, though someone should have told her not to purse her lips as if trying to stop live frogs escaping from her mouth. O'Connor's production is sensitive to every last Brylcreemed flick, but after the brutal exposure that America's favourite decade suffered in LA Confidential, this seems a pointless attempt to regild the era in bourgeois nostalgia. And it's not quite as sunlit as it pretends: blistering summers referred to in the script are not matched by conditions on location, forcing O'Connor to keep her camera off the sky and produce exterior scenes that feel as cramped as making out on the back seat of a Ford Coupe.

People are rude about Alicia Silverstone just because she's not some ribless gym-freak who subsists on a diet of cocaine and lo-cal Vittel. Her new vehicle Excess Baggage (12) trades on this reputation, exploiting her overfed Beverly Hills brat image for its story of an unloved rich girl who fakes her own kidnapping in order to inspire some paternal affection. Essentially, this is a secular version of A Life Less Ordinary, and though the plot is well-structured, director Marco Brambilla lacks the necessary lightness of touch to make it fly. As Silverstone's violent Uncle Ray, Christopher Walken steals what scenes there are to steal with another of his unblinking deadpan loony performances, goggling out from beneath one of the weirdest hairpieces of his career.

Like Silverstone, Tim Robbins has a body that is reassuringly free from the ravages of personal training. Because he's so conspicuously talented, nobody ever mentions that he looks like a piglet who's managed to get himself a very good tailor. If enough people make the mistake of seeing him in Steve Oedekerk's dreary comedy, Nothing to Lose (15), this may soon change. It's formulaic, fun-free fare distinguished only by a criminal under-use of Kelly Preston.

A jaw-droppingly perverse tale of sexual violence, Todd Verow's Frisk (18) is as comfortable as going to an Ann Summers party with Jeffrey Dahmer and the Wests. His cast move through its 16mm haze with the trance-like woodenness of porn actors (this is in fact, what one of his characters does for a living). Not without a Sadean sense of style, but its cavalcade of anal rape and disembowelling would trouble the strongest stomach. Your mother wouldn't like it. Unless, of course, she's a necrophiliac serial killer.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.

Comments