Film: Dancing with the devil
Friday 16 January 1998
The New York that you see in Devil's Advocate isn't the bloated over-ripe Big Apple that it is in most movies. The place is supposed to embody hell but the director, Taylor Hackford, locates the stillness inside the bustle and gives it a sinister calm - the whole city feels like it's just coming round from an anaesthetic. Hackford uses dreamy time-lapse photography and bleaches out most of the soundtrack noise so that you pick up on eerie isolated sounds. The ambitious young lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) has arrived in New York from the sticks to accept a top job at a thriving law firm, and the film shows the city the way he sees it: as a paradise of whispered insinuations, and exotic under- the-counter promises.
The picture wants to be a cautionary, penetrating study of moral decay, though it's actually more like a sitcom about Satanism - I Love Lucifer perhaps. It spins off from one stale idea - that if the devil were to choose a human form, he would be a lawyer - and riffs on it endlessly. Kevin is wooed by his boss, the enigmatic John Milton (Al Pacino), and inadvertently trades in his soul for success, while only his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) notices that there's something demonic about the cream of New York society. The film throws in everything but cloven hooves: there's a sound of pulsing heartbeats, a woman who howls biblical quotations, and even a character who is killed in a hit-and-run accident immediately after imparting crucial information (it's a miracle that the license plate doesn't read 666). None of this takes the film any further from its initial jibe at lawyers - it's like the writers were so thrilled by the gag that they packed up for lunch and never came back. There's even a cameo from Don King, though no one thought of writing him a funny line. Are we still supposed to be creasing up at his candy-floss hairdo?
Devil's Advocate is structured very carefully, and you admire Hackford for the care he takes with the material. Almost nothings happens in the first hour, and the tone is distinctly muted - you can feel frustrated at not being able to connect with what's on screen, until you realise that it's meant to be happening at one remove. But when Hackford really needs to be cautious, in the whirlwind second half, he just takes his foot off the brake, and the movie collapses in on itself; it goes to hell long before the furnace flames start roaring.
There is still a reason for seeing it: Charlize Theron, who is sad and wild and tender as Mary Ann. What with Reeves being a touch too convincing as a man with a bank account where his personality should be, and Pacino adrift in his scat-cat ringmaster routine, Theron is really the only human being left on the screen. When she falls apart, you ache for someone to piece her back together again. When Keanu Reeves falls apart, you just want to hiss "Ooh, get you!"
Devil's Island (15)
It would be no great pity if you set out to see Devil's Advocate and wandered into Devil's Island by mistake - this sparkling Icelandic comedy from the director of Cold Fever, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, looks like it was shot inside a septic tank, but the humour has a bright, fresh sheen. The movie sings. It takes place in 1950s Reykjavik, in Camp Thule, the army barracks deserted by US troops but now inhabited by those families willing to brave the landscape of corrugated iron and mud.
The characters are misfits and nitwits: Baddi (Baltasar Kormakur) returns from a trip to the States embellished with mannerisms picked up from movies and radio, and violently discontented with Icelandic life; he has an awful grandmother with a face like a battered anvil; and there are fleeting characters like the hobbling postman who is pestered by ginger-haired schoolgirls for no apparent reason. The picture has crazy logic, a twanging rock 'n' roll soundtrack, and comic rhythms that might have come from outer space. It's the kind of film that can make you high.
Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (nc)
Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is a ferocious black comedy about the Bosnian conflict, focusing on two childhood friends, one a Serb, the other a Muslim, who now find themselves on opposite sides of a wartime stalemate. You'll find the dark, alluring imagery reminiscent of Kusturica mixed in with violence that makes Peckinpah look restrained, but I was most impressed by the precarious interlocked flashbacks that give the film real poetic resonance. When a character dies, their life flashes before your eyes - it's really something for death to carry that weight in cinema, a medium where body counts get notched up like pinball scores.
Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis (15)
There's a suicide by gunshot in every one of this week's new releases except Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis, where you would actually welcome such an atrocity befalling one of the characters. A fading showbiz manager (Rik Mayall) realises that by wiping out the last big name on his books, a repulsive rock star played by Jane Horrocks, he could also wipe out his debts to an American mobster. The film doesn't click; it has too much heart and not enough teeth.
Battleship Potemkin (nc)
You couldn't say the same of Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein's chilly 1925 masterpiece, which is re-released this week. An intoxicating collision of fact and fiction, documentary and hyperbole, it is a film to be argued with and marvelled at. If you know someone who thinks that cinema didn't know how to riot and rage in the years before Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese picked up a camera, then please help in their education by buying them a ticket to this film. They'll thank you for it.
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