Film: He's back - and this time it's rubbish

Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a nice guy who spends just a little too much frazzled time at the office and not enough quality time with his charming wife, Liz, and their young son Jamie. Why, he's so busy chasing sales on the last day before the Christmas break that he even misses Jamie's final karate class. No wonder Jamie can scarcely stand to look at him when he eventually comes home that night, and that Liz is quietly furious. Howard tries to apologise to his son, but Jamie won't listen. So Howard tears the little snot's arms off and stuffs them down his throat, sticks Liz's head in the microwave, blows up the house and travels back to the 21st century, where the machines are hunting mankind to extinction. Oh, all right, I dreamt the last bit.

What really happens in Jingle All the Way (PG) is far more disgusting. Even though he has muscles the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger's (a bizarre state of hypertrophy to which, mysteriously, no one alludes save in the throwaway line, "You can't bench-press your way out of this one, Howard"), the man grovels to his ungrateful brat, and is graciously re-admitted to the bosom of his family, on condition he tracks down the present every pre-teenage television zombie is gagging for this year: a plastic figurine of the super-hero Turbo Man. The snag is that every other child-pecked parent in town is in quest of the same piece of junk, which has been sold out for months, and the shopping malls are crammed with rioting consumers. Never daunted, Howard yells "This is war!" in his quaint approximation of American English. Graceless slapstick fills the next 90 minutes or so.

Arnie can be amusing when playing the cyborg or the psycho - a fact the director here, Brian Levant, tacitly acknowledges by having his camera zoom in to that classic vengeful, squinty-eyed glower at the feeblest pretext - but if he wants to thrive in lighter parts like these, he needs to keep studying the Cary Grant videos: bugging one's eyes and yelling are just two minor ploys for screen comedy, not its entire lexicon. He might also think about picking scripts that have something to keep the over-eights in the audience diverted, especially since somewhere deep within the premise of Jingle are hints of what might have been a brisk satire on invertebrate parents and manipulated children.

The only character in the film who says anything vaguely sensible is Howard's most strenuous competitor in the Turbo Man hunt, Myron the Mailman (played with no great distinction by a chap called, simply, Sinbad), who discourses angrily about the swinish greed of toy manufacturers. Myron's appearance seems calculated to anticipate and soothe lurking ethical qualms: he's carefully branded as a hot-headed loser lest anyone should sympathise too eager- ly with his rant. Jingle All the Way can't afford to admit that there's anything even faintly nasty about products targeted at those well below the age of reason, because it's a prime example of just such a tacky product. And unlike Turbo Man, it never flies.

Gluttons for the spectacle of over-acting should try not to miss Jodie Foster's second directorial outing Home For the Holidays (15), in which their loyalties will be torn between Geraldine Chaplin, as a maiden aunt with flatulence and incipient senile dementia, and Robert Downey Jr, as Tommy, a hyperactive gay prankster who is probably intended to be a blissfully non-bourgeois free spirit, even though he seems like just another loud-mouthed twerp. Flanked by performances like these, Holly Hunter's role as the suffering heroine, Claudia, can't help but appear to be a miracle of understated tact. She's particularly good in the scene where her car is involved in a hideous crash and she becomes so sexually aroused that ... sorry, drifting again.

Actually, there's not much in the way of plot to keep things rolling. Claudia, a single mother, loses her job as a picture restorer - the most visually imaginative sequence in the film is its overture, which shows her in extreme close-ups, preparing her materials - flies back to her childhood home for Thanksgiving with her parents (Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning) and other relatives, suffers all the indignities that traditionally make up such voluntary ordeals, and flies home again, having acquired a suitor (Dylan McDermott) who may or may not be right for her. The characters tend to gripe throughout about how meaningless the whole ritual has become ("That was absurd, let's eat dead bird" is Tommy's Wildean pay-off to the saying of grace) - risky dialogue, since it accentuates the pointlessness of undergoing such rituals by celluloid proxy. And all the more so when the final reel oozes with what Roland Barthes used to call sticky humanism, bless him.

No risk of such cloying matter in The Day of the Beast (18) which is far and away the best Christmas film of the bunch; possibly ever, for those with sufficiently morbid dispositions. In its pre-credit sequence, a priest is crushed to death by a giant crucifix which falls on him as he turns away from the altar. Hard on the heels of this anti-clerical coup comes the credit sequence, in which another priest prowls through the streets of Madrid at night stealing from beggars, whispering "Rot in hell" in the ears of the dying, and - sublime stroke - pushing a mime artist down a large hole. Reader, it was love at first sight. Though few of the subsequent scenes have quite such a refreshingly adolescent sense of callousness, and while it is only fair to concede that it bored and irritated a fair number of more mature critics, Alex de la Iglesia's film is an absolute hoot, with all the energy and unabashed daftness of a feisty graphic novel.

Alex Angulo, who acts his part with a beguiling mixture of meek good manners and sociopathic violence, stars as Father Angel Berriartua, a visionary professor of theology - or, probably, nutter - who, after years of painstaking numerological work on the Book of Revelation, has concluded that the Antichrist will be born on Christmas Day 1995 in the Spanish capital. Since it is already Christmas Eve, he needs to get his skates on if the universe is to be saved, hence that rapid-fire career of street crime (which is meant to con the devil into thinking him an eager recruit to the forces of darkness), and his recruitment of two colourful sidekicks, a slobbish Death Metal fan called Jose (Santiago Sagura) and "Prof Cavan", a famous charlatan with a TV show dedicated to the occult. Their subsequent adventures are violent, misogynistic, hallucino- genic and very, very silly: HP Lovecraft as staged by the Marx Brothers. Eat lead, Miracle on 34th Street.

The week's second agreeable surprise comes from Ireland: The Last of the High Kings (15), directed by David Keating, which manages to find colourful patches in the otherwise threadbare material of the sensitive- boy's-coming-of-age story. Its convention- al components include the dreamy hero (the American Jared Leto, not bad at all), the long hot post-exam summer of his 17th year, the girl(s) he yearns for, the family who just don't understand how difficult it is to be young and doomed to leisure, the evocative soundtrack by the likes of Mott the Hoople (it is 1977, but Dublin hasn't fully taken stock of safety pins and expectoration), and a band the local priest knows as the Tin Lizzies.

Its less orthodox touches mostly concern the hero's family: his father (Gabriel Byrne, who also co-wrote the screenplay) is a flamboyant actor of the kind who favours velvet smoking jackets, his mother (Catherine O'Hara) a romantic Nationalist bigot stuffed to the gills with enough under-informed historical bile to make a Noraid supporter feel thoughtful. There's a juicy supporting cast, too, including Colm Meaney as a drunken and lascivious Fianna Fail candidate (people are making dark allegations about him, he slurs to a pal during a post-election binge, and he knows who the allegators are), and Stephen Rea as a mendacious taxi driver who once had that James Joyce in the back of the cab. Well worth a detour.

A late arrival to the week's releases is another addition to the Keanu Reeves oeuvre, which bears the uninviting title Feeling Minnesota (18). (Trivia buffs may care to know that it was inspired by a Soundgarden song.) Keanu, fetchingly bestubbled and not long out of jail, comes home for the gangster-enforced wedding of his disgusting older brother Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio) to an understandably reluctant young woman (Cameron Diaz). Within minutes, Keanu and Cameron are thrashing away on the bathroom floor; before too much longer, they're off on the road with a bottle of cheap champagne and a stolen dog. Sam follows, and soon people are hitting each other with unusual frequency. Its writer-director, Steven Baigelman, seems to be aiming for some sort of gritty farce. By and large, the results leave you feeling Oklahoma - bored to the point of despair.

Londoners in search of an eccentric pre-Christmas treat could do at lot worse than visit the NFT, which is reviving the enjoyable Hong Kong hit A Chinese Ghost Story (15), made in 1987 by Ching Siu Tung. The naive story of a wandering tax collector who recklessly spends the night in a haunted temple, falls in love with a lissom ghost and, eventually, has to stage a lightning raid on hell itself in the company of the hardest Taoist priest you could hope to meet, it bursts at the seams with delightfully weird images: vampire-mummies dissolving into goo, flying heads and the lethal giant tongue of a tree demon. Fun, and curiously beautiful at times.

Film details: Going Out, p14

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