NEW FILMS

AMISTAD

(15) H

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey

Amistad is a pertinent example of the good Spielberg/bad Spielberg complex which

has been with us ever since the director made his self-consciously adult film The Color Purple in 1986. He had been out of control before, on the comedy 1941, but with

The Color Purple he invested so much effort into challenging the world's notion of him as a purveyor of disposable entertainment that he appeared more shallow and self-absorbed than he had ever done before, and ended up making one of his most superficial movies.

Amistad isn't quite that bad, but it is entirely without vision or purpose, unless Spielberg made it just to let us know that he thinks slavery is a jolly rotten thing.

The film opens spectacularly with the slave cargo of the ship La Amistad breaking free and slaughtering their captors in 1839. Spielberg takes their brutality out of context, depicting them as inhuman monsters, even denying them subtitles so that they remain alien to the audience. It's an interesting manipulation of perspective, but as the film progresses and we are encouraged to sympathise with the slaves, Spielberg loses his grip.

He can't find the middle ground between portraying these men as savages and eulogising them, so he gives them the same holy aura of wonderment that he applied to the aliens at the end of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It's inconceivable to him that these slaves were real human beings with foibles and bad habits equal to those of their white counterparts. In Spielberg's eyes, the dignity of suffering bleaches out a person's soul, so that they become unequivocally noble and pure. You may expect the main captive, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) to heal someone's wound with a glowing forefinger like ET.

For Spielberg, the outsider is a catalyst of change, but not in the bitter, gritty sense suggested by Pasolini in Theorem, or Renoir in Boudu Saved From Drowning. In Amistad, the outsider is a saint whose primitive culture is light years ahead of western civilisation.

It's tempting to think that the film might have achieved more if it had either remained true to its original representation of Cinque as an untamed monster, or else aligned itself with him completely and adopted his perspective, subtitles and all. Now that Spielberg has his own production company, it is not so inconceivable that he should be able to show a black struggle from a black point of view, rather than filtering it through the experiences of the white men who defend the slaves.

DESPERATE MEASURES

(15) H

Director: Barbet Schroeder

Starring: Michael Keaton, Andy Garcia, Brian Cox

The boy who is going to die of leukaemia unless he can get a bone marrow transplant from the only match in the country - psychopath Michael Keaton - looks into the eyes of his father (Andy Garcia) and says: "Something went really wrong, didn't it dad?"

You could say that. Keaton has escaped without depositing his bone marrow, and most of the local police force are lying slain in hospital corridors. It isn't long into this absurd B-movie-style thriller that you start to sympathise with the grizzled cop, played by Brian Cox, who asks Garcia, "How many people have to die tonight so the kid of yours can live?"

Desperate Measures has none of the gleefully camp sparkle that you might expect from the director, Barbet Schroeder, though Michael Keaton gives good value for money as the lunatic who is so terrifying that even police dogs are scared of him.

THE EDGE

(15) HH

Director: Lee Tamahori

Starring: Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, Elle MacPherson, Harold Perrineau

David Mamet's screenplay for this intermittently thrilling tale of male rivalry feels about five years too late, peddling as it does a back-to-the-wilderness ethic that makes the film seem like an Iron John workshop. Anthony Hopkins is the billionaire who is stranded in the Alaskan wilds with fashion photographer Alec Baldwin, the man whom he suspects of coveting his young wife. They have to combine Hopkins' intellectual prowess with Baldwin's rugged masculinity in order to survive, but even once they have negotiated obstacles such as hunting for food and eluding a hungry bear, they must confront each other.

Like its characters, the film is half crazy and half compelling, with some especially fine locations in Alberta, Canada, providing the backdrop for a macho battle that becomes more intriguing the sillier it gets.

LA MAMAN ET LA PUTAIN

(18) HHHH

Director: Jean Eustache

Starring: Bernadette Lafont, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Francoise Lebrun, Pierre Cottrell, Jacques Renard

Jean Eustache's exploration of the confused souls of Parisian Bohemia arrives in a new print with freshly corrected subtitles in the original full-length three-hours-and-35-minute cut that caused such controversy upon its original release in 1973. It's a gritty but engrossing study of a young man called Alexandre (the outstanding Jean-Pierre Leaud), who flits between Marie, the older woman with whom he lives, and the younger Veronika, whose casual recklessness entrances him. Slowly, the film reels you in with its unsparingly honest portrait of the conflicting ideals and emotions of a lost generation. Revelling in the pretensions of Alexandre, but innocent of pretentiousness itself, this is an unexpectedly gripping and profound work.

THE UGLY

(18) HH

Director: Scott Reynolds

Starring: Paul Rotondo

An imaginative New Zealand-made horror movie about a psychologist who attempts to unravel the mind of a psychopath. The chilling metallic design of the sets is particularly impressive, as is the stylish editing which seamlessly blends past and present, fantasy and reality. See Wide Angle, p16.

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