Good things in soft packages

UNSTRUNG HEROES Diane Keaton (PG) THE BROTHERS McMULLEN Edward Burns (15) ANGELS AND INSECTS Philip Haas (18) TOY STORY John Lassiter (U) A CLOSE SHAVE Nick Park (U) GHOST IN THE SHELL Mamoru Oshii (15) DR JEKYLL AND MS HYDE David Price (12)

Ah, the American film family: cutely tortured, divertingly dysfunctional, almost always, finally, a Good Thing. Few are the directors who manage to combine a tough core of emotional truth in broaching that subject with the demands of a soft ending. This week two films make a stab at it, both comedies and (more unusually) both, despite weaknesses, worth seeing.

In Unstrung Heroes, 12-year-old Steven runs away from his over-strict father and terminally ill mother to live with his two daffy uncles who pass on to him their own strange wisdom. Uncle Arthur, poet, simpleton and compulsive hoarder (he even catalogues his dreams) teaches him innocence and joie de vivre; Uncle Danny, a paranoid conspiracy theorist, breathes a whiff of rebellion into an America only beginning to emerge from McCarthyism and the Cold War (it is the early Sixties).

John Turturro has the straight role as Steven's father, the (apparently) sanest brother who has channelled his eccentricity into creating a series of bizarre inventions and into a firm belief in scientific progress, which he has to abandon as his wife fades away before his eyes. Turturro, an ace actor, brings a lot of pain to this character. As the boy, Nathan Watt is inspired casting too, a droll little customer who views his family throughout with wry detachment.

If Unstrung Heroes sounds like sentimental mush, it does, it must be admitted, incline that way at moments. But it's also a rich, humorous, touching film. The screenplay is by Richard LaGravenese, who wrote The Bridges of Madison County and The Fisher King. The actress Diane Keaton, directing her first feature (she has made one documentary, Heaven, and worked extensively in television), displays an infectious warmth and a lovely light touch.

Three more gently warring siblings figure in The Brothers McMullen, another first feature, though a rather lower-budget one - the camerawork is functional and the grainy images bear the mark of a 16mm blow-up. This comedy explores the impact of Catholic guilt, and of a violent father, on the sons' romantic entanglements, and is accurately described as an Edward Burns film; Burns produces, directs, stars, writes and, as the charming, feckless middle brother, gives himself all the best lines, including a showstopping monologue in which the battle of the sexes is compared to the chopping of a banana.

It's not quite as ingratiating as it imagines: all three of these loveable Irishmen dump big-time on their woman, and the last-reel solutions to their problems - especially those of the unfaithful married brother - come over as a little pat and unconvincing. Another strong debut, though.

In Angels and Insects, adapted and directed by Philip Haas from AS Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia, a young Victorian explorer and naturalist enters the home of his wealthy patron, and unexpectedly wins the hand of his beautiful, neurotic daughter. Together, they breed prolifically. Meanwhile, his research into the cruel mores of an ant colony reveals disturbing parallels between the insect and human worlds.

This is a cool, modernist costume drama, less Merchant-Ivory than school of Greenaway, with its anagrammatic title, striking, surreal costume design, music (by Alexander Balanescu, a former Michael Nyman collaborator), and obsession with lists and taxonomies. It could have been terrific if directed by a visual stylist like Greenaway - or Martin Scorsese. But Haas is a plodder; too many big dramatic scenes are frittered away in unimaginative, static camera set-ups. Angels and Insects looks like a television movie and has American TV money in it.

Mark Rylance, who doesn't have a classic leading man's good looks, gives a dour, phlegmatic performance which I first thought flat but which, on a second viewing, revealed subtle shadings of his character's decency, and his hidden sensuality. Patsy Kensit is fine when playing the golden girl, but less skilled at handling the complexities - her long speech in which she reveals her dark secrets caused audience titters both times I heard it. Kristin Scott Thomas (interviewed overleaf) transforms what seems at first a drab incidental character into a clever, gifted woman whose triumph leaves you cheering.

British animation continues to thrive: the US box-office chart is dominated by Toy Story, a first full-length feature by John Lassiter, the Oscar- winning director of Knick-Knack. It opens here in March. Meanwhile Nick Park's A Close Shave, the latest instalment in the adventures of the indomitable Wallace and Gromit, plays in a programme of animation at the ICA and on television this Christmas. Part of the pleasure of the W&G films springs from their craftsmanship, ingenious storylines and attention to detail; but much comes from the very British humour and the play with genre; in the case of A Close Shave, think World War II adventure, film noir, sci- fi and a dash of Brief Encounter.

Japanese Manga animation is sui generis, and commands a cult following. But it has yet to cross over to a wider audience. Touted as a "major breakthrough", Ghost In the Shell won't do the trick: it has all the strengths of Manga but also all the same old faults. There are striking chiaroscuro compositions, a great score and some technically impressive sequences (notably one beautiful scene showing Tokyo in the rain). But there is also a garbled tech noir story, long stretches with minimal animation or even none at all, and a truly terrible dialogue track. While upscale Western animation invests in top stars and voice artists to bring its stories alive, the Mangas use monotone hacks and pay zero attention to lip sync: their characters come on like ventriloquists' dummies.

Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde is a puny modern riff on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic story. Tim Daly, an ineffectual boffin working as a researcher for a perfume house, inherits diaries containing a secret formula which turns him at inopportune moments into a woman. Her ruthless methods secure quick promotion at the perfume lab. Could this be a satire on sexual politics in the workplace? Could it hell: career advancement is a simple matter of shopping till you drop, turning up for work in skintight leather and giving your boss foot relief under the table.

Some odd gaps in narrative and continuity suggest that this "comedy" suffered radical surgery at a late stage of editing. Sean Young, who once, long ago, seemed a viable actress, plays the demented female alter ego. For collectors of peculiar credits, the end titles include a tribute to Ruby the Toy Fox Terrier, creator of the "poodle vocal stylings", and probably the only tolerable performance in the movie.

n All films on general release from Friday

SHEILA JOHNSTON

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