Film Reviews: Begged, stolen, borrowed

Cop Land James Mangold (15) The Borrowers Peter Hewitt (U) This World, then the Fireworks Michael Oblowitz (18) Marius et Jeanette Robert Guediguian (15) Paradise Road Paul Beresford (15) Curdled Reb Braddock
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The shadow of It's a Wonderful Life (see review, below) hangs over two of this week's other new releases. In Cop Land Sylvester Stallone is much better than you might have expected. Which isn't the same thing as saying that his performance is brilliant but it's a start. He plays Freddy, a sheriff presiding over the town of Garrison, New Jersey, and it doesn't really matter that he's a big old lug who's deaf in one ear and a bit slow off the mark, because he never has to do anything more demanding than break up a group of bickering school kids. The town's population is mostly comprised of New York cops who have set up home across the water as a kind of sanctuary, so Freddy really has nobody to police; he just has to make sure that his little sheriff's badge is pinned on to his coat the right way up.

Naturally Freddy's aural impairment isn't just a dodgy ear - it's a symbol and a double-edged symbol at that. Firstly it alerts us to the fact that Freddy literally hears no evil, just in case we hadn't picked this up by the way he ignores the misdemeanours of other cops. Secondly, as disabilities almost always equal extreme evil or extreme purity, we prime ourselves for the revelation about how his hearing was damaged, and we aren't disappointed. Guess what? He got it from plunging into an icy river to save a person trapped under water - just like George in It's A Wonderful Life.

Freddy had risked his life years ago for Liz (Annabella Sciorra), who now lives in Garrison with her husband, a successful cop who represents everything that Freddy could have been. We get to know all this very quickly because the writer-director James Mangold has created an undercover officer called Figgis (Ray Liotta), who gets some abysmal speeches crammed with exposition, in which he effectively articulates Freddy's inner turmoil. It couldn't have been any less subtle if Mangold had printed sub-titles revealing Freddy's thoughts at the bottom of the screen.

Naturally, Freddy has a dramatic turning point. And don't we just know it. To the sound of Howard Shore's stirring dramatic score, Freddy emerges from the darkness of a subway underpass into the blinding white light of New York, where he has come to shop and corrupt cops to the Internal Affairs investigator (Robert De Niro). This shot symbolises his journey from denial to acceptance, cowardice to bravery. Do try and keep up at the back; Mr Mangold is going out of his way to make this easy for you.

Stallone is refreshing here precisely because he adopts the opposite approach to Mangold. He doesn't give anything away; every emotion is directed inwards, and it makes a change not to feel concussed by this actor's narcissism. Cop Land suffers by comparison with each film it echoes (One False Move, High Noon, Rio Bravo), but Stallone works away from the safe and familiar, and the success of his performance lies in the distance that he has put between this and everything else he has ever done.

The Borrowers borrows from It's a Wonderful Life for its villain, another Mr Potter, here played by John Goodman from Roseanne, but still a scheming malicious property developer who entertains dreams of constructing a Pottersville. He is out to demolish the last property that stands in his way, but has reckoned without the Clock family - four wily, resourceful ginger-haired lodgers who reside in that house. These Borrowers - so called because they're the reason that batteries and socks and Scrabble pieces go missing in your household - are small enough to fit comfortably inside a thimble, but from the moment you witness what they can do with a curtain hook and a pack of dental floss, you know that Potter is going to be no match for them.

Much of the slapstick has the potential to be sour and nasty, but the British director Peter Hewitt maintains a delicate balance between comic book fun and outright sadism that the Home Alone movies never could. It helps that his cast is made up of some very spritely comic performance: as well as Goodman, there is Mark Williams from the Fast Show, as exterminator Jeff, essentially the role that Goodman played in Arachnophobia; Jim Broadbent and Celia Imrie as Ma and Pa Clock, and sharp cameos from Hugh Laurie and Ruby Wax.

The most exciting aspect of the film is its design, which is neatly integrated with its casting: you might wonder why an American family are plagued by English borrowers but when you see the sets, which are a retro-futuristic cross between Salford and New York, it all starts to make sense. This is an alternative universe where English and American culture has collided so incongruously that a traditional English bobby can carry a sub-machine gun, while wheelie bins come with old-fashioned American letter boxes attached. It doesn't matter why. The film's ideas are so bewitching that your never inclined to question their logic.

This World, then the Fireworks is a hunk of enjoyable nasty film noir packed with ugly pleasures that just seem to dissolve into air without ever amounting to anything. The screenwriter Larry Gross has adapted one of Jim Thompson's most unsavoury novels and captured its nihilism and cruelty, yet still the picture doesn't go anywhere. It's the story of Marty (Billy Zane) and Carol (Gina Gershon), twins who are still embroiled in the incestuous relationship which began after a shocking childhood trauma. The tone is pitched somewhere between stylised melodrama and trashy sensationalism (there are blasts of brass on the soundtrack that can make you laugh more than the script). And there is at least one fine human performance, from Sheryl Lee, best known as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, who turns up here as the policewoman who puts Marty's world in a spin.

I also enjoyed Marius et Jeanette, a silly, ephemeral romantic comedy, but it too seems to just drift across the screen. The eponymous lovers are a security guard and a single mother, but the film goes on to incorporate the lives of their neighbours too, and seems to be trying for an Altman effect, though there's none of that directors assurance on display. It's a diverting piece of fluff all the same, and a good deal more modest than Paradise Road, which is a movie for people who still mourn the end of Tenko. Glenn Close and Pauline Collins are among the women who wile away their days in a Japanese PoW camp by forming a vocal orchestra who hum their way through the classics until even their captors are entranced. For some reason, I found that the torture scenes provided light relief from these musical sequences.

Don't rush to see Curdled either - originally a short film about a group of women who specialise in cleaning up after grisly murders, it was seized upon by Quentin Tarantino, who has executive produced this feature-length version. Presumably he is responsible for the movie's glut of references to his other films. That's the price you pay for having a producer whose ego is bigger than his wallet.

All films open today.

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