Cinema: When breaking in is hard to do

A Group of small-time crooks plan a heist; it goes badly wrong. If I had a vanilla slice for every post-Tarantino film I've seen with that synopsis, I could open my own cake shop. Alan Taylor's Palookaville (15) employs a plot, an environment and an idiolect familiar from a gaggle of recent low to mid-budget thrillers, but thankfully, this film isn't just a lot of gunfights punctuated by fastidious conversations about fast food. Instead, it's a po-mo crime caper with a social conscience, in which three New Jersey deadenders turn to crime to make ends meet. And here's the twist: Taylor's gang of three don't blow anyone's brains out or double- cross each other; they don't even get hubristic on anyone's ass. They're just too nice for that. So nice, in fact, that some of the film's events have the nostalgic, optimistic warmth of Ealing comedy. Imagine if Charles Crichton had directed Reservoir Dogs, and you've a fair idea of what sort of a place Palookaville is.

Taylor's triumvirate of criminal fainthearts aren't in the Keitel league: Sid (William Forsythe) is a quiet divorcee sustained in his loneliness by two halitosis-ridden mongrels, and Jerry (Adam Trese) is a sentimental husband and father. Only Russ (Vincent Gallo) seems to have the potential to cut it as an outlaw, but he still lives with his mother, his sister, and his watchful brother-in-law, Ed the Cop (Gareth Williams). For them, criminal ambition is not a matter of virtuosity or sadism or greed, but a "momentary shift in lifestyle" that will stave off eviction and ensure that there's something more for supper than dry cornflakes. "We're not cut out for this," opines Jerry, as they mull over their plans in a diner. "Some people are. For instance, criminals."

The film's title comes from On the Waterfront: after Marlon Brando tells Rod Steiger that he coulda been a contender, he adds that all he's left with is "a one-way ticket to Palookaville". It's somewhere cheapjack, second-rate, and Taylor expends much energy in creating a milieu that fits the bill: his characters drive cruddy cars, shop in discount supermarkets, stock their apartments with unfashionable furniture. To some extent, this is contemporary American noir's usual raid on Edward Hopper: There are bright-lit shops viewed from rainswept streets, sparsely furnished rooms glimpsed through windows, figures in hallways weeping over their suitcases; a gazetteer of melancholy urban places. (The current release, City of Industry, is a good example of how lazy directors pirate such images.) Taylor, however, has found himself a script (by David Epstein) and a set of actors capable of carrying that sense of seedy tragedy without becoming overmannered. And Palookaville's rejection of tricksiness allows it to keep its focus on good, strong, simple cinematic practice: it's a film that's sensitivite to the spaces occupied by its actors, and has a satisfying instinct for the topography of connected rooms, apartments and lives. And Taylor can use Hopper-inspired images for comic ends: one smartly funny scene has Russ's lover-next-door (Kim Dickens) watching through a window as Ed the Cop licks doughnut-sugar from his brother-in-law's discarded trousers.

But much of Palookaville's humour wells up from the source material; three comic tales by the post-war neo-realist Italo Calvino. His Theft in a Pastry Shop inspires Russ, Sid and Jerry's initial misadventure: in the opening scene, Taylor fools us into thinking we're watching a professional jewellery-store break-and-entry - until it transpires that the gang have accidentally sledgehammered their way into the bakery next door. Some burglars might decide to call it a night at this point, but Jerry is so desperate that he stuffs his shirt with cakes and takes them home to his wife. Set-pieces like this connect the film with a less cynical form of cinema, and here's where the ghost of Ealing walks again - crooks like Bernard Cribbins and Sid James could easily have resigned themselves to such cock-ups. Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel would leave no punk standing.

In Idiot Box (18), a group of small-time crooks plan a heist; it goes badly wrong. This time we're in the southern suburbs of Sydney, where people don't bother turning off the TV or putting out their fags while they're having sex. Mick (Jeremy Sims) and Kev (Ben Mendelsohn) are "the young and the bloody useless" - two unemployed air-guitarists who plot a bank robbery to relieve the dole's beery boredom. Whereas the heroes of Palookaville take earnest notes from an afternoon re-run of Richard Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery, Mick and Kev are incapable of such scholarship: these guys are Beavis and Butthead unwittingly re-enacting scenes from Killing Zoe. Director David Caesar has crafted an ugly but absorbing little film with an impressively thrashy soundtrack, a confident use of widescreen, and a nervy, caustic sense of style. It's at its best when recording the seamy rituals of its characters (mooching down the pub; setting off car alarms, walking around the kitchen in unspeakable nylon briefs); at its worst when offering a derivatively kooky conversation about the composition of a hamburger.

From the same end of the earth comes Broken English (18), the producer of which, Robin Scholes, was responsible for the 1993 hit Once Were Warriors. The plot boasts a promising mix of characters: Nina, a young Croatian waitress in Auckland (Aleksandra Vujcic), falls in love with Eddie, a Maori chef (Julian Arahanga), who helps her escape from her brutal father Ivan (Rade Serbedzija). At the same time, another waitress, Clara (Jing Zhao) offers to pay Nina to marry her Chinese lover (Li Yang) so he can secure Kiwi citizenship. Infuriatingly, the film fails to mine its own rich potential, gradually losing all subtlety as it moves towards a disappointingly violent conclusion. And Nicholas doesn't venture too far beyond racial stereotype: the Maoris smile and wear flowers in their hair; the Croats are suburban warlords who resolve domestic arguments with a baseball bat; and the Chinese characters nod and grin like loonies. There's also an overemphasis on shots of Vujcic doing thing like slo-mo jogging in a cut- off snakeskin top: it's all a bit Xena, Warrior Princess for comfort.

Martine Dugowson's Portraits Chinois (15) has a similar internationalism, with British interests represented by Helena Bonham Carter (in an impressive, literate, French-language debut). The problem with Portraits Chinois is its characters: they're a fashionable collection of Parisian friends and colleagues as capable of genuine kindness as a slabload of poissons froids. And the film gets polluted by their icy pretentiousness: Jean-Claude Brialy's enervated fashion designer, for instance, spouts things like, "I wanted to design clothes that would stop the brutality between men and women once and for all," and then we have to watch him wank down the back of his chaise-longue. An inhospitable glacier of a film.

Conversely, Joe Mantello's Love! Valour! Compassion! (15) has a kind but troubled heart. Expanded from Terrence McNally's Tony Award-winning play, the narrative puts eight gay New Yorkers in a country house for three summer holiday weekends. Like Broken English, it fails to produce the emotional complexity suggested by its premise, resorting instead to a barrage of gags, confessions and bitchery that are engaging but essentially predictable. (Liberace, Judy Garland and Edith Evans all get regulation name-checks). And whilst the film has an uneasy relationship with its campier elements, they're left to generate its most powerful emotional resonances. Although earth-fatherish host Gregory (Stephen Bogardus) and his blind partner Bobby (Justin Kirk) are the characters that form its natural moral centre, they make a dull pair. (Bogardus smiles so sweetly throughout that you're waiting for the scene where the rabbits and the bluebirds help him with the dishes.) Genuine, if more conventionally limp- wristed warmth and wit comes from the relationship between show-tune addict Buzz (Seinfeld's Jason Alexander) and the willowy, terminally-ill James (John Glover). It's old-fashioned romance blossoming between two men sewing tutus on the gazebo.

Francis Megahy's The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson (15) is not without interest, but it does seem to be without much point. It's a fake documentary about a Brit in Hollywood who vanishes in mysterious circumstances (or something), and whose life was (as they say) not what it seemed. In a succession of one-take scenes, Megahy coaxes utterly convincing reminiscences about the absent "KJ" from a cast that includes Michael Brandon (who once played Dempsey or Makepeace, I forget which), Guy Siner (the gay Nazi from 'Allo 'Allo), Ian Ogilvy (the pre-Kilmer Simon Templar) and - as themselves - Pierce Brosnan, Dudley Moore and James Coburn. Brandon tells a lot of rather good agent jokes (like the one about the agent who's offered untold success in return for his soul, his wife's soul, and the souls of his children and grandchildren - "What's the catch?" he asks); Moore gives his best performance since Mr Spiggott the one-legged Tarzan, and Brosnan reveals the truly bizarre nature of his real accent. All very nice, but apart from showing us that Megahy can pastiche the style of Nick Broomfield's Heidi Fleiss documentary without going to the trouble of finding himself a real story, I'm unsure what I was meant to be getting out of it. I'd have been more interested to hear how Guy Siner made it to Hollywood (he's also in the new David Lynch, Lost Highway), or how Ian Ogilvy became entombed in US daytime soaps. Even a fly-on-the-wall with Dudley Moore's marriage guidance counsellor would have been worth a look. As it is, Megahy's "mockumentary" remains a puzzling folly.

But this week's what-the-sod-is-going-on-here-? prize is reserved for Warriors of Virtue (PG), in which a small boy (Mario Yedidia) falls down a sewer pipe and re-emerges in a magical forest that's policed by a gang of kung-fu fightin' kangaroos. Got that? Angus MacFadyen is resident panto villain Lord Komodo, strutting and pouting his way through a desperately camp performance that owes as much to burger-period Elvis as Olivier's Richard III. And as if all that wasn't odd enough, screenwiter Michael Vickerman has added a dressing of pseudo-Taoist claptrap, giving the film an even weirder taste. Fortunately, I doubt whether its intended audience will swallow the script's phoney mysticism or quick recourse to Sally Jessy Raphaelisms like, "We all have cocoons, Ryan. It's breaking out of them that gives us the strength to fly". Kids, if your parents insist on packing you off to this no-hoper, you'd better bring as many Alcopops as you can shoplift.

Cinema details, Going Out, page 14.

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