Stella Does Tricks (18) Coky Giedroyc
The Delta (nc) Ira Sachs
Traveller (18) Jack Green
In the Company of Men is a satire painted in such broad strokes that you may feel obliged to throw tomatoes at the screen. The writer-director Neil Labute doesn't seem to be searching for a much more sophisticated response than that. Certainly he wants the film to be discussed at all the right dinner parties, but he hasn't invested it with the kind of complexity that repays careful analysis.
Its central characters are a pair of obnoxious misogynists. Chad (Aaron Eckhart) is the suave, dominant predator - he's like a walking oil slick, and he sullies whatever he touches. Although Howard (Matt Malloy) is technically Chad's boss, he acts like his stooge, hanging on his every malicious word. Howard must be the one who always got picked on in the playground; he has the appearance of the Milky Bar kid turned plump.
They have both just been dumped by their girlfriends, and decide to wreak their revenge by finding a woman and destroying her. The target of their cruelty is Christine (Stacy Edwards), a young, deaf secretary who works in their office. Chad and Howard take her out on separate dates, engineering parallel romances, and of course, you are appalled by their behaviour - how could you not be?
Labute increases your discomfort by denying Christine's perspective until the final moment, choosing instead to strand you in the men's rooms and bars and office corridors that are Chad and Howard's domain.
This claustrophobia, evoked through intense repetition of shots and locations, is impressively consistent. But Labute sabotages his own objectives by making the film's characters so extreme that you are dissociated from their behaviour. Chad and Howard are a pair of savage, desensitised Iagos, and Christine is no more enigmatic a creation - the camera idolises her to the point where she becomes a bleached-out icon of perfection, pure and innocent and good. Born to be destroyed by beastly middle-management.
The saving grace of In the Company of Men is its formal, sombre style. The film is punctuated by title cards which divide the action into weeks, each card accompanied by an aggressive blast of snarling jazz, but music is conspicuous by its absence from the rest of the picture.
I also liked the chilling anonymity of the business world. The organisation that the characters work for remains nameless, and when Chad leafs through a brochure containing photographs of his company colleagues, he identifies them not by name but by the degree to which he loathes them.
Am I alone in thinking that there has always been something slightly sinister and unctuous about James Bolam? He approaches his role as an avuncular pimp in the gloomy new British film Stella Does Tricks as a cross between Michael Caine in Mona Lisa, Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanours and Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. He oozes ugliness; after his scenes, you feel like scrubbing yourself clean.
The film follows the efforts of his favourite girl, the teenage Glaswegian Stella (Kelly Macdonald), to escape his clutches. It looks as if she has made it when she hitches up with a fidgety young Jack-the-Lad, played with feline grace by Hans Matheson, only he has problems of his own, and soon Stella finds herself back in the rut of misery and self-loathing that began with the child abuse hinted at in the film's flashbacks.
The director, Coky Giedroyc, has a steady control of her cast, and the three central performances are impeccably detailed. The film's flaws are in Al Kennedy's patchwork screenplay, which throws together superfluous fantasy sequences and gritty realism without regard for coherence. There is no sense of character or focus in the conception of Stella, either - it is left to the vibrant Macdonald to convey the life pulsing inside this armour-plated survivor.
But the picture has its compulsive moments, notably the taut exchanges between Bolam and Macdonald, and one scene highlighting a novel if unhygienic use for a Fisherman's Friend.
Do try and catch the new American drama The Delta on its two-week run at London's ICA. This subtle picture is sensitive in its depiction of race and class divides, focusing on Lincoln (Shayne Gray), a middle-class bisexual boy torn between the security of his girlfriend and the kick he gets from cruising the streets and bars of Memphis. At a late-night cinema he runs into the effusive Vietnamese immigrant Minh (Thang Chan), who charms the pants off him - literally. The pair take an impromptu midnight excursion on the Mississippi, which provides a refreshing escape but only complicates the choice that Lincoln will have to make come daybreak. The film has a generosity toward its characters that recalls the early films of Pasolini and Fassbinder, but its real magic is in the way it continually veers off the beaten track.
Traveller is a meandering, low-key drama whose release just happens to coincide with the appearance of new films starring its lead actors. Bill Paxton (Titanic) plays a con artist who takes young Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights) under his wing in the Irish-American travellers' community which is his home. Their escapades have an annoying good-ole-boy flavour; one episode is accompanied by manic banjos on the soundtrack, which momentarily make you fear the arrival of Jim Nabors. Some of the scams have the seductive flavour of those in David Mamet's House Of Games - though Mamet would never have had his characters use the proceeds from their most dangerous con-trick to fund a cute young girl's ear operation.