Director: PJ Hogan Starring: Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Cameron Diaz, Rupert Everett (12)
A fair way into My Best Friend's Wedding, there is a fleeting moment of blissful surrealism which knocks you for six. Until that fillip, the film has been a baggy pastel-coloured revenge comedy, jazzed up by splashes of farce. Jools (Julia Roberts) has spent the entire story trying to sabotage the wedding of her dearest chum Michael (Dermot Mulroney), who is poised to marry Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), and just at the point where it seems that her misanthropic scheme has succeeded, humanity prevails and she tries to convince Michael that he was right to choose Kimmy after all. It's a scene pregnant with poignancy.
When a character has taken this long to comprehend the error of her ways, you don't expect the director to go and undermine her big shot at repentance. Hogan specialised in sudden shifts of emphasis in his first feature, Muriel's Wedding, though in that film it was usually the laughs that were being silenced by tragedy, rather than vice versa. My Best Friend's Wedding features a few choice scenes in which our expectations are abruptly confounded, or gently teased, but generally it offers straight trades for anyone who likes their romantic comedy sweet not salty.
Julia Roberts sinks her teeth into her role with the insatiable hunger of a vampire. In My Best Friend's Wedding, audiences may feel perplexed at being invited to direct their boos and hisses at the woman in whose resurrection they have come to rejoice. For a start, she plays a food critic, which is short-hand for "tough cookie". After her first encounter with her rival in love, Roberts bluntly announces "She's toast". Goodbye pretty woman. Hello Terminator.
Inevitably, the film reveals itself to be harbouring a message at odds with its main character's motives, so it's not surprise to find that Jools undergoes a defrosting process. Friendship, rather than passion, is the order of the day. To its credit the picture concedes that platonic relationships have their own unique romance. The most persuasive advertisement for keeping sex out of the equation comes from the scenes with Jools and her gay pal, George, exquisitely played by Rupert Everett. While George fulfils the traditional role of advisor and good egg, he remains Jools's sole confidante and the only character with whom the audience is actively encouraged to identify.
Certain concessions have to be made when a gay man is the most sympathetic character in a Hollywood film. Libido is out. George is only permitted to display sexual behaviour when it's in disguise, so he masquerades as Jools's camp fiance. But because you're in on the joke, you don't feel swindled by this facade.
Hogan's use of music is the most endearing feature of the movie. He doesn't take many risks with his choice of songs, drawing mostly on Bacharach/ David compositions, but he employs them to striking effect. There's the charming opening sequence, where a bride and her maids of honour act out "Wishin' and Hopin'" against a bright pink set. It's George's rendition of "I Say A Little Prayer" which gives the film its biggest lift, as the song spreads until the roof of the fish restaurant is trembling and even the waiters are waving along with their lobster-shaped oven gloves.
GALLIVANT Director: Andrew Kotting Starring: Gladys Morris, Eden Kotting (15)
In this experimental documentary, director Andrew Kotting makes an idiosyncratic tour around the national coastline, looking at the British people and landscape through the eyes of his 85-year-old grandmother, Gladys, and seven-year-old daughter, Eden.
Moving from beach chalet to crag, from allotment to cliff-top, Kotting evokes a national iconography, his painterly compositions capturing the natural grandeur of the coastline and institutionalised gaiety of the seaside. These eclectic images are accompanied by an eccentric running commentary, stitched together from encounters with local characters, but it's the developing relationship between Gladys and her great-grand-daughter which provides an emotional centre to all the larking about.
Unlike that other camera- touting traveller Patrick Keiller (who gave us both Robinson in Space and London), Kotting strives to leaven his avant-garde techniques with a tone of flippant, home-movie jollity, but, at 100 minutes, the informality slips into indiscipline, intimacy into indulgence.
Speeding and time-lapsing his 16mm film, jump-cutting and sneakily splicing archive footage, Kotting creates a densely edited work that is both restive and overlong. A curate's egg of a film which is by turns both eerily beautiful and repetitively mundane.
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Director: Mike Leigh Starring: Katrin Cartlidge (15)
After the cheering catharsis of Secrets and Lies, Mike Leigh cools the emotional temperature for a far bleaker reunion. Set over one weekend, Career Girls follows former flatmates Hannah and Annie (Lynda Steadman) as they rebuild the friendship they forged 10 years before at North London Polytechnic.
Posing as rich house-hunters the pair travel London, spying on property owners and salesmen, and bumping into ghosts from the past as they go. Compared with some of Leigh's other work, Career Girls can be crudely schematic, shuttling between flashbacks and a present where they somehow contrive to chance upon every significant figure from their student past.
That said, Leigh's acute observation is as rewarding as ever, uncovering meaning and pathos in the apparently mundane and eliciting powerful lead performances from Cartlidge and Steadman, who wring wry humour from their split-decade roles. As they fumble over sex and romance, the film seethes with a thin-skinned adolescent energy, which should trigger moments of cringing self-recognition in anyone who's ever been an insecure, 18-year- old poseur.
And if over-zealous improvisation means that the film's character studies threaten to fly apart in a mass of mannerisms, Career Girls remains for the most part a quietly affecting study of friendship, and a rather desolate meditation on what it means to grow up.
DEEP CRIMSON Director: Arturo Ripstein Starring: Regina Orozco, Daniel Gimenez Cacho (18)
Set in 1949, Arturo Ripstein's Mexican version of The Honey Moon Killers stars Regina Orozco as Coral, a single mother who answers an advert in the lonely hearts columns and meets up with the courtly Nicolas (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), a vain, rugwearing con-man. Undeterred by his penchant for seducing, robbing and murdering lonely women, the besotted Coral abandons her children to become his partner in bed and in "business".
Played out with sombre deliberation against a backdrop of seedy poverty, Deep Crimson describes how passion can turn ordinary people into monsters. Happily, while coolly clocking the grotesquery of his characters, Ripstein never allows them to become inhuman. Instead, he peppers their sedate serial killing with moments of tenderness and vulnerability.
The baleful melodrama is further enriched by a mordant humour. "You look bigger than your photograph," whimpers one victim when her suitor's "sister" looms large in the doorway. "I've always looked bigger," snaps the fat murderess.
PHOTOGRAPHING FAIRIES Director: Nick Willing Starring: Toby Stephens, Ben Kingsley, Emily Woof (15)
Nick Willing's handsome-looking Edwardian fable about fairies at the bottom of the garden spins a supernatural detective story that starts with Conan Doyle and leads to some seriously surreal whimsy. Early scenes paint an atmospheric portrait of Britain after the Great War, a time when traditional religion is being supplemented with a hokey spiritualism which thrives on a grieving nation's morbid credulity.
It's a climate which works to the advantage of young photographer Charles Castle (Toby Stephens) who, having lost his wife in a honeymoon accident, spends his days superimposing dead soldiers onto family tableaux. Until, that is, the mysterious Bea Templeton visits his studio, clutching snaps of her daughters playing with fairies. Convinced of their authenticity, Castle is soon following Bea to the country, to run amok in the woods and cross swords with Bea's preacher husband, the beetle-eyed Ben Kingsley. Despite some fine performances, the film's energy and credibility evaporate as its metaphysical mystery is crassly resolved with a swarm of computer- generated nymphs.
SPAWN Director: Mark AZ Dippe Starring:John Leguizamo, Michael Jai White (12)
Based on the comic book by Todd McFarlane, this Industrial Light and Magic show of special effects sees government agent Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) murdered by a double-crossing boss who arranges to have him burnt alive. Making a pact with the devil to see his wife, he returns five years later as superhero Spawn. Looking like an action man who's been pulled from the mould too early, Spawn tries to stop his old boss from taking over the world, little guessing that the devil has double- crossed him, too, and plans to have him lead Hell's army in the destruction of mankind.
Well, you get the message, plenty of cartoon-book rhetoric booming off the monolithic walls of a standard, futuristic dystopia - biochemical war fare, a corrupt, power- mongering CIA... But Spawn does have one or two other tricks up its computerised sleeve. John Leguizamo's Satanic, maggot-snacking Clown livens things up whenever he's on-screen and there's that once-great stage actor Nicol Williamson on the side of Good, looking genuinely spooked to be in the picture at all. But just remember that at the helm is Mark Dippe, the man behind the special effects for Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, which gives you an idea of where the money and imagination went.
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